Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo museums under siege
Staff unpaid and buildings unheated as Bosnia’s national museums fight for their survival
By Zoe Larkins. Museums, Issue 234, April 2012
Published online: 12 April 2012
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s major cultural institutions, including the National Gallery and the National Museum, which are both in the capital Sarajevo, are in danger of closing indefinitely due to a lack of funding and government support. Staff, many of whom have been not been paid for months, have responded by organising events and exhibitions to bring attention to the crisis. The situation stems from the country’s dysfunctional administrative system and the lack of a national cultural ministry.
The National Museum, which was founded in 1888, is open to the public “for now”, said Andrijana Pravidur, a curator at the institution, in a statement issued on 2 March. Employees have not been paid in seven months and endure “almost impossible working conditions”.
The National Gallery closed to the public last September. It had been without a director and chief financial officer since May. The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also in Sarajevo, was forced to shut its doors on 4 January after running out of money for maintenance and heating. Staff at both institutions have worked without pay since the respective closures.
The National and University Library, which has had no heating since early January, is next on the list of anticipated closures.
Access to important archives and collections will be lost if the museums and libraries close. The National Gallery was founded in 1946 and its holdings include Balkan art ranging from 15th- and 16th-century icons to pieces by contemporary Bosnian artists, and works by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. The National Museum’s collection includes the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th-century illuminated Hebrew manuscript from Spain.
These and other cultural institutions in Sarajevo, including the National Film Archive, have operated on a hand-to-mouth basis since the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian War in 1995. The treaty did not establish a national cultural ministry, leaving the maintenance of the national museums and libraries to local governments. Since 1995, cultural institutions have received small grants intermittently from the national government, mainly from the ministry of civil affairs and the cultural ministries of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its ten cantons.
The current crisis is a result of national elections held in 2010, which failed to create a coalition with a parliamentary majority. Without a functioning government, there was no funding for cultural institutions last year.
Museum administrators in Sarajevo say that grants from the new government, formed this February, will not solve the structural problem affecting the institutions. They believe that the institutions need to be funded at a national level if they are to operate effectively in the future. They also want a national cultural ministry to be created.
The Sarajevo-based artist Damir Niksic occupied the National Gallery for 84 days after it closed in September. Niksic also occupied the National Museum as a protest against its threatened closure in January.
Niksic says: “It is time for one ministry of culture and education to create a solid cultural policy and an educational programme that will create a new image, new culture, contemporary and all-inclusive, based on a cosmopolitan tradition in Bosnia, not just on cultural, religious, ethnic and racist tribal divisions.”
Julien Anfruns, the director general of the International Council of Museums, sees the closure of cultural institutions in Sarajevo as an international issue—a violation of the [council’s] ethical code to protect and promote cultural heritage. “We believe that the museum is a symbol of cultural dialogue, especially in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where cultural diversity is very important in recent history,” he says.
Staff at the National Gallery and the historical museum have organised exhibitions and reopened venues temporarily to bring attention to their plight. In February, the historical museum invited the public to view the permanent collection for “Open Doors Week”. The National Gallery opened on 29 February for an exhibition of photographs of protests in Bosnia from 1990 to 1992 by Milomir Kovacevic. Ivana Udovicic, a curator at the National Gallery, says: “This exhibition relates to our protests and our actual position. We also wanted to underline that nothing has changed since 1 September.”
In the past decade, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has established museums and libraries that compete for funding with the national institutions in Sarajevo. Many Serbs do not believe that the national institutions represent their history. “Dayton ended the fighting, but tension has continued, and it is expressed in the cultural sphere,” says the Bosnian-born art historian Azra Aksamija, a co-creator of the Cultureshutdown.net website, which aims to raise awareness about the situation in Bosnia.
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