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Frustrated, Yet Hopeful, Bosnians Rally To Revive National Museum

  • Zvjezdan Zivkovic

The National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a nearly unique institution, including departments of archaeology, art history, ethnology, geography, history, and natural history. It houses a library of some 162,000 volumes.

The National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a nearly unique institution, including departments of archaeology, art history, ethnology, geography, history, and natural history. It houses a library of some 162,000 volumes.

SARAJEVO -- Eight-year-old Noa is excited to be going to a museum for the first time.

"I like the museum very much," the Sarajevo native says. "I've never been here before, but I always wanted to come."

For most of his conscious life, Noa has passed by the shuttered doors of the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, barred from enjoying his country's greatest treasures.

The museum was closed in October 2012, after 124 years of operation, as a result of crippling funding shortfalls and a lack of political consensus on how to honor and celebrate the heritage of this religiously and ethnically divided country.

This month, however, parts of the collection have been accessible -- thanks to a growing civic movement called I Am The Museum. The project -- organized by activists and museum staff -- is a series of artistic happenings and open-door, occupy-style events aimed at bringing "the issue of saving the museum to the top of the agenda of political decision-makers," organizers say.

The initiative, which will continue at least until the end of September, was born of equal measures of frustration and hope.

"People from abroad are shocked because they cannot understand our problem," says Lebiba Dzeko, head of the museum's ethnology department. "We think the situation will change and we hope it will. We are already seeing some truly positive signs of change."

"It is important for people to understand that we are not the intruders here," Dzeko continues. "The people who locked this museum are the intruders. We are, in a certain sense, victims -- just like this institution that we love, respect, and protect."

Dayton's Divisions

Nearly two decades after the signing of the Dayton accords brought an end to the war in Bosnia and established an awkward, fragile framework for the country, the status of the National Museum and six other national cultural institutions remains undetermined. Rather than coming together as a country, Bosnia in many ways has increasingly institutionalized the quotas and divisions established by Dayton.

"Over the past eight years, this country and its political elites in this grotesque, ethnicized political structure have tried to destroy the museum," says university professor and I Am The Museum participant Zdravko Grebo. "One group detests the idea of a national museum because they detest Bosnia-Herzegovina as a country. Others want to get something for themselves in a push to create yet a third entity [in Bosnia's federal structure]. And the Bosniaks who claim to speak for the state of Bosnia have failed to do much to solve the museum problem."

"Are there Serbian minerals?" Grebo asks, referring to suggestions that the collections be divided. "Are there Croatian butterflies? They can take everything, but I just don't know how they plan to divide medieval Bosnia. After all, who did it belong to?"

The museum was closed in October 2012, after 124 years of operation.

The museum was closed in October 2012, after 124 years of operation.

The National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a nearly unique institution, including departments of archaeology, art history, ethnology, geography, history, and natural history. It houses a library of some 162,000 volumes.

I Am The Museum has attracted support from across the country and across all its many fault lines. Celebrities and cultural figures have taken their turns keeping the lights on. Activists have also urged the European Union and Western governments to pressure Bosnia's government to resolve this issue.

"The museum is not about one ethnicity or one religion," says Cardinal Vinko Puljic, who participated in an action earlier this month. "It preserves our deep roots and remembers our history. This must be cherished so that future generations can appreciate their country in which many people with many beliefs and cultures have lived."

Reawakening Sarajevo

Bosnian poet Adisa Basic sees the I Am The Museum initiative as an important awakening of civil society in Sarajevo, once the most cosmopolitan and lively city in the Balkans.

"There is something deeply disturbing in the fact that we all accepted this [closure of the museum]," she tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service, "that we became resigned to it and accepted it as the natural order of things. Something inside me opposes this.... It is terrible for me to accept that this building is dead when it is not. It is full of life -- there are so many precious things here, and the people who have been keeping them for us all these years deserve our solidarity and support."

Museum workers say an annual budget of some 1.4 million Bosnian marks ($814,000) is necessary to reopen the museum at a minimal level.

"Money is not the main issue, but political will," says Ivica Saric, an adviser to the Bosnian minister of civic affairs. But Saric is optimistic that a new plan for the museum that is scheduled to be approved in mid-September just might break the impasse.

"The agreement has been drafted and should be signed after September 15," Saric says. "It involves almost all government levels from the district to the city to the federal and national authorities. It will provide funds sufficient so the museum can reopen and employees can be paid."

That decision can't come soon enough for 8-year-old Nejla, who visited part of the collection during a recent I Am The Museum action.

"I am glad it is open," she said. "I cried for the museum when they closed it. I would really like to see the animals and the upper floors."

Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague
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