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A Padlock on Culture: The Closed Bosnian National Museum

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the resulting Dayton Peace Accord, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia. (Read all posts in this series.)

Empty display cases in the archeology section of the Bosnian National Museum which museum keepers said were emptied for the safekeeping of artifacts in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 15, 2014.  The museum closed its doors on October 4, 2012 after employees had worked one year without salaries, many of whom continue to work without salaries to this day; the Bosnian National Museum is short the minimum 700,000-800,000 Euro it would need to keep its doors open.
Display cases sit empty at The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. The museum closed its doors on October 4, 2012, due to political gridlock that led to a shortage of funding. The employees had worked one year (and many continue to work) without salary. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Sarajevo’s cultural institutions were once the glue that bound the citizens of this historic metropolis. But in the past few years, some have shuttered as politicians bicker over their funding.

During the Bosnian War, “culture was a form of resistance,” Asja Mandić, a curator and art history professor at the University of Sarajevo told me. “Women were wearing high heels and running from snipers to get to openings.”

But in the power-sharing agreement that ended the conflict, Bosnia was left without a national culture ministry. Bosnia’s new sub-states, the Federation (dominated by Muslims and Croats), and the Republika Srpska (dominated by Serbs), were to each support their own, separate cultural agencies. There was no body responsible for the upkeep of a multicultural legacy. Over a dozen national institutions ranging from the National Art Gallery to the Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired Persons were left in a legal limbo.

The institutes scraped by for years on grants from private donors, international organizations and local authorities, but in 2011, after political gridlock had delayed formation of a government for more than a year, public funds dried up. Now, the Republika Srpska has come out against “national institutions,” preferring their own Bosnian Serb versions. Not wanting to give into that policy, the Federation has offered nominal sums to the museums, but will not provide enough for full operation, forcing some to shut down.

At the National Museum in Sarajevo, a makeshift wooden barrier reading “closed,” printed in bright red, warns away potential visitors. I stood awkwardly at the arched entrance, waiting for signs of life behind the austere neo-classical façade, and hoping to somehow gain admittance. The paint was peeling, a light bulb was missing. A banner for an old exhibit was nearly faded.

A window next to the entrance began to inch open: a frail woman in wire-rimmed glasses was struggling to hoist herself through the portal. “Come around back” she told me, after surmounting the ledge. “I’m not supposed to let people in this way.”

Andrea Dautović has worked at the National Museum for the past 34 years, overseeing the 300,000 books in the museum’s collection. Founded in 1888 by the Austro-Hungarians, the museum was intended as a center for research and cultural life, reflecting the unique diversity of Bosnia. Its most prized possession, a Jewish manuscript from the 13th century, known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, survived the Nazi occupation. During the Bosnian War, the complex endured despite being hit by 400 big-caliber projectiles, Ms. Dautović said. The former museum director was killed on the job. Despite all that, she proclaimed, “We even put on two exhibits during the siege.”

But by October 2012, the museum’s 60 employees had not been paid for a year. Adnan Busuladžić, the museum director, fought a desperate campaign to procure more money but “the government did not respond,” he told me. He was left with little choice but to close the museum to the public. Two years later, many employees are still working without pay to maintain the collection.

“I came through snipers to save everything, so of course I continue to work,” Ms. Dautović explained. She took me to the precious Haggadah, which the slim resources that exist go into protecting. With its swirling text and colorful illustrations, it is a treasure held hostage by politics that only a few have the chance to appreciate.

The near-collapse of the National Museum is an embarrassment for the authorities in the Federation, who “have put pressure on us to open our doors” Mr. Busuladžić stated. The museum survived both World Wars and the siege, but today, he said, “it is a big question whether we will survive this peace.”

Funded by the National Geographic Society

Read All Posts by Cara Eckholm