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Bosnia's National Museum Shuts Its Doors, A Victim Of Dayton's Legacy


Bosnia-Herzegovina's National Museum in Sarajevo has closed its doors due to lack of funds. Critics blame the country's ethnically fractured politics.
Bosnia-Herzegovina's National Museum in Sarajevo has closed its doors due to lack of funds. Critics blame the country's ethnically fractured politics.
Curator Marica Filipovic leads visitors to Sarajevo's National Museum past a display of traditional clothing worn by Bosnia-Herzegovina's main ethnic groups.

She points to a pair of burgundy wide-legged pants favored by men in the country's Jewish community. There is also a radiant scarlet Croatian waistcoat, a Serbian dress ornamented with rows of jangling coins for dancing, and a lemony, belted frock worn by Bosnian Muslim women.

The folkwear is a colorful testament to Bosnia's rich history as a multiethnic state. But it's that same ethnic heritage that contributed to the closure of the National Museum on October 4, 124 years after its opening.

The National Museum, whose archaeological and ethnographic treasures include a 650-year-old illuminated Jewish manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, is one of seven cultural institutions in Bosnia being shuttered due to a lack of funding.

Critics say the closures are part of the fallout from Bosnia's fractured political system, designed by Western policymakers to bring a quick end to the brutal Bosnian War.

The Anti-Dayton Group protests against the closure of the National Museum, with a banner saying "Shame on you," on October 2.
The Anti-Dayton Group protests against the closure of the National Museum, with a banner saying "Shame on you," on October 2.

The 1995 Dayton peace agreement divided the country into two ethnically based, semiautonomous entities, the Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic) and Muslim-Croat Federation.

With power now distributed along ethnic lines at the local level, the country is left with only a weak central government to weigh in on questions of overarching national interest, including culture.

Symbolic Communication

With nationalist sentiment rising in the postwar country, many authorities -- particularly those in the Serbian entity -- now say that responsibility for museums and other cultural institutions should fall to individual ethnic groups. They say the state bears no obligation to preserve the country's collective heritage.

The imminent closure of Bosnia's oldest and best-known cultural sites has deeply alarmed many in Sarajevo, whose resident intellectuals take evident pride in their city's multiethnic landscape.

WATCH: Slideshow on the treasures of Sarajevo's National Museum

Senadin Musabegovic, an art-history professor at the University of Sarajevo, remembers first visiting the National Museum as a schoolboy on a class trip. He says both local officials and Dayton's international architects bear responsibility for the current mess.

"There are a lot of levels of responsibility here. One side belongs to the national governments, the local governments and local politicians. Another side belongs to the international community, which doesn't have any sensibility regarding issues of public good," Musabegovic says.

"But we need to find the money to support this kind of institution. This institution must survive. It's very important," he adds. "This kind of institution represents a kind of communication between all the people -- something that goes beyond the national divisions we have in Bosnia right now."

Slowly Suffocated

Sarajevo's National Library, Historical Museum, and National Art Gallery have joined the National Museum in witnessing slow but steady shutdowns -- losing their heating, then their staff salaries, and then finally locking their doors.

The National Film Archives, the Museum of Literature and Theater Arts, and the National Library for the Blind have also been affected.

For the past several years, all seven institutions have scrambled to find temporary financing in order to stay open. Adnan Busuladzic, the director of the National Museum, says his building has systematically lost its alarm system, phone lines, and Internet connection.

Eventually, it lost its skilled staff of curators as well, a move that forced city police to assume the day-to-day care of the museum's priceless Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Ottoman-era relics.

WATCH: The Sarajevo Haggadah, the ultimate survivor
Sarajevo Haggadah Is The Ultimate Survivor
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Particular concern has circled around the Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been the museum's star attraction since it went on permanent display 10 years ago.

The thick Passover manuscript, which is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold, is believed to have been smuggled out of Spain by a Jewish family expelled during the Inquisition.

It was later spirited out of Sarajevo during World War II to protect it from the Nazis, and reportedly protected by a Muslim cleric in Zenica. Five decades later, during the siege of Sarajevo, the Haggadah was stored for safekeeping in an underground bank vault.

The manuscript, which is believed to be worth more than $700 million, is now enclosed in a high-security glass case that keeps it preserved under precise temperature and humidity settings.

But its beautifully illustrated pages depicting Creation and the death of Moses, like the rest of the museum's treasures, are no longer visible to the public.

Jakob Finci, a former diplomat and a leader of Sarajevo's Jewish community, expresses confidence that the Sarajevo Haggadah will never leave the city, and says the National Museum has already rejected several offers by museums in the United States and Spain to purchase the precious manuscript.

But he expresses frustration with the museum's management and local authorities for failing to find a way to keep the building -- and the Haggadah -- on display.

"Can you imagine if the Louvre displayed the Mona Lisa just four times a year? I'm sure that they wouldn't be getting 8 million visitors, because 7.5 million of them are coming to the Louvre just to see the Mona Lisa," Finci says.

"It's the same with the National Museum in Bosnia. A lot of visitors, especially international ones, would like to see the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is the most precious piece of art in the National Museum. And unfortunately, it will be out of sight."

Bosnian authorities have failed to find alternative funding solutions for the National Museum and other cultural institutions, despite repeated pledges to do so.

But even those involved in the problem have accepted defeat when it comes to the notion that the preservation of Bosnia's rich cultural history will be provided by the state.

"People have finally realized that the most important question is not whether an institution will be nominally significant on a state level," says Dubravko Lovrenovic, the minister for culture and sport in Sarajevo Canton. "The most important thing is for an institution to have regular income."

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