There were places I visited in Sarajevo because I wanted to and there were places I visited because I felt like I had to. The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the latter. I have spent a large part of my career working in museums, including now. The idea of visiting something that reminds me of work while I am on vacation in Eastern Europe feels me with dread. I always recoil at such a thought for the same reasons. There will be an overwhelming number of things to see and read, then after an hour my legs and back will begin to ache, this will be followed by a test of intellectual endurance, as I grow weary of words and pictures and artifacts. The visit will come to an abrupt end, mainly because my eyes are glassy and mind numb from trying to take it all in. Museum fatigue is what I feel at the beginning of a visit these days, rather than at the end.
This feeling weighted me down as I walked towards the entrance of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a late spring morning in Sarajevo. On the grounds leading to the entrance were medieval tombstones, an ominously intriguing reminder that the history of Sarajevo was much older than its famously fraught 20th century. Yet the 20th century was never far away, as the gloriously Italian Renaissance revival style museum building, erected at the tail end of the Austro-Hungarian era, so conspicuously showed. When I entered the museum though, it was the very recent past that confronted me. Here was a place that had aged, not because of time, but due to war. Its most prominent characteristic was neglect.
Agreeing To Disagree – Bosnia’s Past As Its Present
I soon discovered that The Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have any world class exhibits. It does hold some priceless cultural artifacts, but there was little funding to care for them. As a matter of fact, lack of money was the main reason the place had fallen into a state of disrepair. The federal government was not forthcoming with operational funding. The main reason was that each ethnic groups representative entities, whether Bosnian Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks (Muslims) wanted their own cultural institutions. Each of them was opposed to a multi-cultural interpretation of Bosnia’s past. This was a harsh commentary on the often contentious ethnic relations at the federal level of government. The upshot was that by the time I visited the museum it was deteriorating badly.
From what I experienced the museum would be deemed by most visitors an abject failure. Paradoxically, that was exactly why, for me, it succeeded. The fact that it was cold, many of the rooms dimly lit and the exhibits falling apart spoke volumes about what the country had suffered since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Not long after my visit, the museum would close for three years. I would later discover that the staff was not paid for over a year before the closure, yet somehow the museum stayed open. They proved that dedication, pride in the museum’s mission and a sense of duty could overcome a lack of funding, but only for so long. To compound matters, there was dissension about what should be presented.
Besieged Sarajevo – Surviving The War, Losing The Peace
The most arresting of the exhibits was one that dealt with the Siege of Sarajevo. This seemed only right, since it was the war and even more so its aftermath that had brought the museum to a point of extreme degradation. There were some artifacts from the siege, but it was a series of photos that spoke volumes. A woman in dark sunglasses rode a bicycle past a bullet pocked Volkswagen Bug, a small child with two black eyes and a bandage covering most of his head held a flower in his hand, the remains of a skeletal petrol pump at an utterly ruined gas station. One photo framed the essence of destruction picture perfectly. The photo was taken through a twisted, contorted metal vehicle door. Where the window glass should have been was the concrete skeleton of a ruined building. Another showed a wing of the National Museum during the war as little more than a series of shattered windows. Surreal and sublime, these images were snapshots of the Siege of Sarajevo.
The exhibit was done with little money, but a surfeit of emotion. The siege was a deeply personal trauma for everyone involved. Later I would learn just how personal for the museum staff. The museum’s director, Dr. Rizo Sijari, was killed during the siege by a grenade blast while covering holes in the building caused by artillery fire with protective sheeting. He was the most notable, but certainly not the only staff member who gave his life quite literally in the service of preserving Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national heritage. Centuries of cultural history were now threatened by narrow political interests and intractable ethnic tensions. The irony was that the museum had survived two World Wars and one of the longest sieges in military history, remaining open for most of that time, but it was on the verge of not surviving an uneasy peace.
The Incalculable Loss – A Museum Of Memories
The exhibit ended with the “Book of Impressions – Exhibition – Besieged Sarajevo”. This allowed visitors to record their impressions of the exhibit. Some of these were deeply personal, such as the one that stated “I can’t stop thinking of my friend that left Sarajevo when she was a kid and could never get her city back.” Sarajevo still stood, but the city would never be the same, neither would the people. The personal traumas they experienced had scarred them for life. All the reconstruction and reconciliation could never bring the city or its citizens back to the peace they knew before the war. Their losses were incalculable. This exhibit communicated to me a little bit of what they had experienced. Unfortunately it was on the verge of being lost as well. A year after my visit the museum would close. “Besieged Sarajevo” was another casualty in a war that was still being fought.