Museums in Kosovo: a first postwar assessment
by András Riedlmayer
Kosovo Cultural Heritage Survey,
Like Bosnia and other republics and autonomous regions of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo has its own general museum, called the Kosovo Museum (Muzeu i Kosovës/Muzej Kosova i Metohije; in the 1990s downgraded to: Muzej u Pristini). The museum is housed in a 19th-century building in the old city center of Prishtina that until 1912 had served as the seat of the Ottoman provincial government; two nearby Ottoman-era mansions house exhibits on folklore and natural history.
Founded in 1949, the Kosovo Museum has departments of archaeology, ethnography, and natural science, to which a department for the study of history and the National Liberation Struggle was added in 1959. It has been active in sponsoring archaeological excavations, conservation and other scientific work. Since 1956 it has published an annual journal called `Glasnik Muzeja Kosova/Buletin i Muzeut të Kosovës', with articles in Serbian and Albanian (with summaries in French, English or German).
In addition to the Kosovo Museum, there are also smaller local museums in Pec/Peja, Mitrovica/Mitrovice, Gjakova/Dakovica, and Prizren. In organization and content, most of these follow the same general pattern as local museums in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Established after the second world war as museums of the National Liberation Struggle, they subsequently acquired bodies of other materials, including archaeological artefacts collected from the vicinity, as well as ethnographic and folklore items and natural science collections. The local and regional museums in Kosovo include:
Other, more specialized museums include:
During our assessment survey in October 1999, we were able to visit five of these museums (the Kosova Museum, the regional museums in Pec/Peja and Gjakova/Dakovica, the Museum of the League of Prizren, and the Museum of Oriental Manuscripts in Prizren) and have some information about the condition of all but the last two (the mining museums).
The one museum that was destroyed in the recent war was the Memorial Museum of the League of Prizren (Muzeu Memorial i Lidhjes së Prizrenit), burned down by Serbian police using shoulder-launched incendiary projectiles on 28 March 1999. Belgrade's Ministry of Information blamed the destruction on a `NATO missile'. Photos of the burned-out ruins of the museum - published in the Yugoslav government's White Book and broadcast on Serbian state television - show the charred but unbroken roof-timbers collapsed into the shell of the small, two-storey, wood-and-mudbrick building, its outer walls still intact at the ground floor level and no sign of the expected explosive damage from the alleged Tomahawk missile attack. Curiously, however, the life-size bronze statues of Sami Frashëri and other Albanian notables of the League of Prizren that stood behind the museum had vanished - apparently vaporized by the selective blast of the powerful NATO missile, without doing any damage to another Ottoman-era building less than 2 meters away. Of course, there's no real question as to who was really responsible for destroying the museum; we talked to several Prizren residents who said they had witnessed the attack by Serbian police.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that a number of international organizations and individuals concerned with heritage protection have continued to take at face value such information, put out both during and after the war by the Yugoslav authorities and by Belgrade-based groups of conservators and museum professionals, such as Mnemosina (Mnemosyne) http://mediateka.f.bg.ac.yu/ radni00.cfm and the Yugoslav national committees of ICOM and ICOMOS. Yugoslav propaganda claims concerning heritage have been repeated uncritically in the publications of US/ICOMOS, and by senior scholars (James Wiseman, `Legacy of Medieval Serbia', Archaeology Magazine, vol. 52, no. 5, September/October 1999), as well as by Prof. Michael Mandel of York University, who has filed a war crimes complaint against NATO before the ICTY. Although many of the claims have no basis in fact, none of these learned professionals seem to have thought it necessary to investigate whether the claims they have cited from Yugoslav sources are verifiable or even plausible.
Some of the now-lost collection of the Memorial Museum of the League of Prizren is described in a bilingual Albanian/Serbian exhibition catalogue, published on the centenary of the League's foundation:
When we visited the site in late October 1999, work had just begun on a project to construct a facsimile of the League building. The project is being sponsored by the Prizren municipal government and shows the enormous symbolic importance attached to the League memorial, both by the Serbian authorities (this was only monument in Prizren that they singled out for destruction during the war) and by the Albanians (who have made it a priority to reconstruct the museum building, working from photographs).There is, of course, no way to restore the collection.
Other museum collections in Kosovo have also been despoiled, not by acts of deliberate destruction but by appropriation. By order of the Serbian Ministry of Culture, hundreds of the most valuable archaeological artefacts from three important museum collections in Kosovo - the Museum of Kosovo, the Municipal Museum in Mitrovice and the Regional Archaeological Museum in Prizren - were removed to Belgrade at the beginning of 1999, ostensibly for an exhibition. The exhibition, entitled `The Archaeological Treasures of Kosovo and Metohija: From the Neolithic to the Early Middle Ages/Arheolosko blago Kosova i Metohije: od neolita do ranog srednjeg veka', opened at the Gallery of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) on 24 March, the day NATO launched its air war. A glossy 747-page catalogue of the exhibition, with illustrations of 424 of the items taken from Kosovo museums, was published during the war by SANU. It's a safe bet that none of these items (which include artefacts of Kosovo's prehistoric and Dardanian/Illyrian cultures, held by modern Kosovars to be the roots of their own civilization), will ever be returned to their rightful owners, the museums in Kosovo.
The building of the Kosovo Museum in Prishtina was occupied by the Yugoslav military during the NATO air war, which used it as an operational headquarters in violations of the laws of war (a breach analogous to misuse of the Red Cross symbol). Since the end of the war in June 1999 the building has been taken over by the European Union and other intergovernmental organizations active in Kosovo as their local headquarters. The museum's director Kemajl Luci, an archaeologist, and his staff have been allowed the use of two small rooms on the ground floor of the building. Items from the collection have been packed in boxes, which the Kosovar museum staff are not permitted to open except in the presence of a UNESCO representative. Unlike many other institutions in Kosovo, which had their archives shipped off to Serbia when Yugoslav troops withdrew at the end of the war, the Kosovo Museum has retained its working documentation, thanks to staff members who hid the files in their homes during the war. But lack of full access to the building and the collections, and the loss of infrastructure (the museum was stripped of all computers and other equipment when the Yugoslav army left the premises in June 1999) has made it difficult to carry on curatorial work.
On 29 November 1999, the Kosovo Museum and the French non-governmental organization Patrimoine Sans Frontières (PSF) signed a protocol of agreement, countersigned by the UN administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), as the provisional governmental authority in charge of the museum. The agreement sets the stage for an ambitious project initiated by Mr Luci and the museum staff to reopen and revitalize their institution, with assistance to be provided by PSF, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and France's Mus‚e National des Arts et Traditions Populaires.
By March-April 2000, PSF has agreed to provide the museum with new computer equipment and technical support, and to assist in reopening the ethnographic exhibits housed in the 19th-century mansion of Emin Gjiku. PSF is also supporting an exhibition on the built heritage of old Prishtina, organized by the Kosovo Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments using photographs drawn from the collections of the Kosovo Museum and the Archives of Kosovo.
Ongoing support for the operations of the museum, however, remains a problem. UNMIK, the governmental authority responsible for museums in Kosovo, has blamed chronic budget shortfalls for its inability to pay the salaries of its Kosovar civil servants on a regular basis. As UNMIK's cultural affairs officer for the Prishtina Region, Mme Pascale Delpech, told PSF's Corinne Szteinsznaider in mid January 2000, unfortunately `culture is perhaps the last among [UNMIK's] priorities [. . .] We have limited means and a long struggle still awaits us.'
In the regional centres Gjakova/Dakovica and Pec/Peja, local Albanian ethnographers have taken control of the two local museums. In Gjakova, the museum's collection was said to be in storage, while the building was being used by the International Crisis Group as their operations centre for a war crimes documentation project (concluded in late 1999). We found the Gjakova museum's new Albanian director, Mr Masar Binxhia, on the premises and eager to hand out copies of an English-language prospectus describing his project for an Ethnographic Museum of Gjakova (Muzeu Etnografik e Gjakovës), detailing plans for exhibits featuring the traditional folklore and crafts of the region. He told us he had 4 staff members, including 2 historians, 1 archaeologist, and 1 ethnographer - himself). He said that the museum, like most museums in Kosovo, had been closed to the public since 1990, and that he and the other Albanian staff had spent the decade unemployed. Along with some students, he had tried to carry on some ethnographic fieldwork in the `90s, but the Serbian police did not view activities that focused on Albanian heritage kindly and they had often been detained, beaten and harassed. Mr Binxhia's handout lists some basic exhibition and conservation supplies needed by the museum, but in fact they need virtually everything.
As was the case at other state institutions in Kosovo, the departing Serbian administration had taken away all the equipment, from typewriters, computers and printers to the museum's small professional library. Current professional literature would be especially useful to this and other museums in Kosovo (even where the libraries were left in situ, virtually no new publications had been acquired from abroad for more than a decade). Also, after a decade out of work and out of touch with the profession, Kosovar museum staff badly need to update and improve their professional education. The most cost-efficient way of doing this would be to arrange for short, intensive summer training workshops and seminars conducted by visiting experts at a central location in Kosovo.
The situation was similar at the museum in Pec/Peja, where the director, also a folklorist, told us that if he had the wherewithal he would like to do some `salvage ethnography' in the villages and katuns (shepherds' hamlets) in the surrounding area. He wanted to collect and document what remained of the region's traditional material culture in the wake of the `ethnic cleansing' that had destroyed tens of thousands of homes in this corner of Kosovo.
In Mitrovice, which we didn't visit due to security concerns, the building of the Municipal Museum was said to be intact, as was the remaining collection - minus the items taken away to Belgrade for the SANU exhibition (the timing of which seems to have been connected with Milosevic's plans for a spring offensive in Kosovo; one assumes he did not anticipate the NATO intervention).
The collection of the Museum of Oriental Manuscripts is still on display in the Sinan Pasha mosque in Prizren. The manuscripts looked in need of conservation, but otherwise intact; we didn't manage to talk to anyone in charge. The Regional Archaeological Museum in Prizren was closed, but its collection , except for the items removed for the exhibition in Belgrade, was also said to be unharmed.
In addition to public museums, there are also collections of artworks held by the religious communities in Kosova, most notably the treasuries of the three major monastic institutions of the Serbian Orthodox Church: the Orthodox Patriarchate in Pec and the monasteries of Visoki Decani and Gracanica. According to information received from the church authorities, these monastic treasuries are intact and the monasteries - which, contrary to some reports, suffered no damage during the war - are under the protection of KFOR peacekeeping troops. Before the war, some of the more valuable items were reported to have been sent to the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade.
However, Islamic sacral art in Kosovo, including art objects as well as illuminated manuscripts, suffered large-scale devastation during the war. A major part of the heritage of Kosovo's 600-year-old Islamic tradition was burned, vandalized or looted as more than 200 mosques - comprising 1/3 of the 607 Muslim houses of worship in Kosovo - were destroyed or seriously damaged by Serbian forces in the course of `ethnic cleansing' operations between May 1998 and June 1999. The destruction of Islamic heritage has been extensively documented by Professor Sabri Bajgora at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Prishtina.
Art objects and important collections of material culture in private hands also perished in the flames as Belgrade's forces burned down an estimated 70,000 homes, including more than 90 percent of Kosovo's 500 extant kullas (monumental stone family residences, some of them continuously inhabited by generations of the same family since the 18th century). The destruction of traditional material culture was particularly tragic in Kosovo's villages, where one of Europe's last substantially intact rural societies violently uprooted.
In closing, it should also be noted that crimes against cultural property were included among the charges last May when the UN war crimes tribunal indicted Milosevic and four other senior Serbian and Yougoslav officials for 'criminal responsibility for violations of the laws or customs of war'. According to the tribunal's statute, these include the 'seizure of, destruction, or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity, and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments, and works of art and science'.
Whether 'seizure' in this case covers the removal of museum art objects to Belgrade is something the lawyers will have to sort out. It could be argued that, at the time these items were taken, Serbian Ministry of Culture had legitimate jurisdiction over museums in Kosovo and had the right to order them to hand over objects for the exhibition. It is another matter whether Belgrade has the right to hang on them - especially in the event that the future holds any change in the political status of Kosovo.
However, precedents are not encouraging in this regard. Almost nine years after Serbian museum professional were sent from Belgrade to 'evacuate' the art collection of the Vukovar Museum to Serbia, and nearly five years after the end of hostilities, not one of those items has been returned to the Croatian museum which owns them. A number of the paintings and objects taken from Vukovar have been exhibited in museums in Novi Sad and Belgrade, and presumably the Serbian museums will continue to treat these works of art as if they had been legitimately added to their own collections. Similarly, more than half a century after the end of World War II, Russia still refuses to return the paintings and artefacts plundered by Soviet trophy commissions from the public and private collections in Soviet-occupied areas of central and eastern Europe at the end of the war.
One particularly pressing concern with regard to antiquities and art treasures in Kosovo is the breakdown in law and order, which has opened up Kosovo to the predators that supply the international trade in stolen and illegally excavated works of art and archaeological artefacts. Some of the same shady actors and smuggling networks that have been spiriting stolen artworks out of Albania (including items taken from museums and churches) over the past decade have now turned their attention to Kosovo.
Associated Press reported on December 10, 1999, that police in northern Greece had arrested four people after they tried to sell what are believed to be stolen antiquities, including a Roman gravestone and ancient coins. A search of the home of one of the suspects also turned up icons and other religious art said to have been looted from Orthodox churches in Kosovo. According to the report: `Authorities learned of the stash after arresting a farmer and a plumber who tried to sell three items to an undercover police officer for 32 million drachmas ($98,700): a gravestone from the Roman period, a small statue head and a marble sink. During police questioning, the two said they had been told to sell the items by a man identified as Constantinos Nanos, 37, and his wife Anna Apostoli. A search of Nanos' home revealed six 18th-century wooden printing templates with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, deemed particularly valuable, as well as 17 bibles dating from the 18th and 19th centuries; six 19th-century metal crosses; two small icons and six coins from early Christian times, police said. They also found seven forged Albanian passports. Nanos told police he had bought the religious items in Albania from people who claimed they had been stolen from churches and monasteries in Kosovo. Both Nanos and his wife, who is of Albanian origin, were arrested.'
These suspected art thefts point to the undeniable fact that, in addition to any political, ethnic and personal motives, one of the driving forces behind the `ethnic violence' in this region is simple greed - the opportunistic grab for easy profit at the expense of others.