The Plight of Museums in Sarajevo
By Christian Soler
Zatvoreno—Closed, the painted red lines of each letter pressed into the crisscrossed wooden boards, haphazardly blocking the way forward. Here, in the heart of Sarajevo, The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina stands with doors shut.
Since October of 2012, the museum has been left to hang among the tangled threads of Bosnian politics with little funding and a host of invaluable artifacts to maintain. Walking past the palatial complex, one might not even realize that three years have come and gone without a single visitor entering. There are no charred facades or battle-worn bricks like the many toppled buildings resting within Sarajevo. It is stately— crisp white piers and classical archways—a survivor of more than three years of siege during the Bosnian War. Only echoes remain of the once deafening artillery shells, but The National Museum may yet crumble under the weight of bureaucracy.
Following the War and the implementation of the Dayton Accords, Bosnia’s system of government was engineered to deadlock opposing ethno-political parties and freeze conflict. Though convoluted, this system was successful in ending mass bloodshed; however, Bosnia’s government has yet to thaw, stuck in a three-way standoff. And therein lies The National Museum’s peculiar situation: everyone believes its preservation to be the charge of someone else. National-, entity- and canton-level administrations have created a circular path of responsibility, each deferring the obligation of funding while employing the complexity of the governmental system to their advantage.
Jim Marshall, Technical Director for the Foundation for the Preservation of Historical Heritage, has been struggling against time to retain the priceless cultural and historical documents of the museum. As an accomplished photographer and Bosnia-phile, Jim experienced Sarajevo during the darker years of the War and has been recognized by the city itself for his contributions.
The two of us sit on the patio of the famed Hotel Europe while he recounts his story of Sarajevo: capturing conflict with his camera almost 20 years ago and the history of a diverse multi-ethnic city that now struggles with mono-ethnicism in the wake of the war. The first notions of The National Museum are accompanied by the plight of outdated facilities—the inability to maintain artwork, cultural documents and a heritage that tracks the country through centuries. The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish illuminated manuscript dating back to 1350, is but one of the many unique pieces left to insufficient care within the museum.
“You look at the great stories of survival throughout history,” says Jim, “these were the people that brought their books with them.” Now, it seems as though many have forgotten the importance of bringing that culture with them into the future. In terms of fighting for The National Museum, there is “no appetite in the ethno-national parties—the opening of a new church or mosque would be infinitely more appealing.” Politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina follow both ethnic and religious lines; those cultural institutions that more clearly align with a divided nation are preferred by politicians who identify as Croat (Catholics), Serb (Orthodox) or Bosniak (Muslims) rather than Bosnian.
Yet funding has not been the only impasse in the past three years as Aida Salketić— native Bosnian and Fulbright scholar who works for Cultural Heritage without Borders and the Balkan Museum Network—notes: “People don’t feel that the museum is a place that also belongs to them.” Public outcry has been minimal since the museum’s closure, likely because of this missed connection. For Aida, the museum is not a complete victim in this situation, but rather a combination of ineffectual government and lack of attentiveness on the part of museum administration is to blame.
To the public, the National Museum’s barred doors “send the message that museums don’t function in the country at all.” However, Aida’s involvement with the museum community in Sarajevo has proven the opposite, as evinced by the thriving atmosphere surrounding the Historical Museum in Sarajevo. “They opened up their space for so many different events, exhibitions, lectures,” she mentions while speaking of her own experiences there, highlighting the differences between the Historical and National Museums—“to connect to society, to connect to the community, this is a really important thing.”
As is the case with most issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina, solutions are hidden by a winding political labyrinth. The basic need for funds to preserve its collection does not address the whole problem; The National Museum also faces a disappointed public that needs more of a reason to fight for this space. These issues must be resolved before the trove of objects and documents within the museum withers. If done together, Bosnians may still rip away those wooden boards—crude, red letters and all— to finally take a step forward.
Christian Soler is a senior English major in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Clara Mokri, ’18.