bosnia report
New Series No:43-44 January - April 2005
A culture served cold
by Mirjana Plazonic

Bosnia’s National Museum reopens its doors, but the battle with indifferent politicians is not over 

Bosnians who want to see the most impressive pieces of their country's heritage had better hurry. The National Museum in the capital Sarajevo has just been reopened after being closed to the public since mid-October. But no one knows how long it will manage to stay open, since its basic problems - lack of funds and neglect by the government - have yet to be resolved.

The closure was the culmination of a nine-year tug-of-war between the museum and the government. During that time, staff salaries were paid irregularly and sometimes not at all, and the museum's operating costs were financed on an ad-hoc basis. The last straw for the management came when the heating was turned off.

The National Museum's sorry state is shared by other cultural institutions in Bosnia, including the Museum of History next door, which also had to close. All have suffered as politicians have used Bosnia's complex constitutional set-up to shift responsibility to other layers of government.

The National Museum was built during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to showcase Bosnia's history in departments of archaeology, ethnology, and natural history, as well as a library. The museum also hosts the legendary Haggadah, a prayer book that details the exodus of the Jews from ancient Egypt. The book was brought from Barcelona to Bosnia in 1492 when the Ottomans gave refuge to the persecuted Sephardim. Other precious exhibits include the brocade robe of medieval Bosnian King Tvrtko II, 12,000-year-old cave drawings, and a herbarium containing numerous native plants. The National Museum has approximately four million exhibits.

During the 1992 to 1995 war, the museum faced the notorious ‘sniper alley’ and the Holiday Inn on one side of the frontline and Bosnian Serb army positions, just 50 metres away, on the other. ‘The National Museum, as one testimony to the statehood of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was also a war target,’ says Amra Hadžimuhamedović, head of the Commission for the Preservation of National Monuments.

The four buildings and the botanical garden suffered damage, but the exhibits were spared thanks to selfless efforts by the museum's staff. So why was it so neglected after the war ended?

The ownerless museum

‘Since 1992, the National Museum has had no state owner any more, or to put it precisely: It has no owner at all,’ Margita Gavrilović, a National Museum archaeologist, explains. That's why nobody feels responsible to secure funds for its operating costs. Gavrilović told TOL that the financial burden was split between the central government and Sarajevo Canton after the war, but funding reached the museum only sporadically. In 2002, Sarajevo Canton and the Federation - one of two entities constituting today's Bosnia - axed the funds, ‘because, in their view, an institution important to the [central] state should be state-aided,’ Gavrilović says.

The result is all too apparent: Since the museum cannot afford to pay the heating costs any longer, plants are rotting, books are threatened by fungi, and ceramics, textiles, papers and parchments are suffering. When the museum was finally closed down in October 2004, staff had not received their modest salaries of around 400 KM (200 euro) in two months.

In December, the museum received a letter from Bosnia's tripartite presidency saying that the central heating would be turned on again, and in late January, the museum and six other cultural institutions received a 1-million-KM contribution (around half a million euro) from the central government, the first time the state level has contributed to these institutions, plus additional funds from the Federation. But these are one-off fixes that cannot answer the fundamental question of who is responsible for national cultural institutions in Bosnia.

The uncertainty surrounding the museum's finances is also endangering the ongoing renovation of its buildings, since the donor - the Swedish government - needs assurances that the museum will be managed properly before it continues with the works.

Hadžiahmetović of the commission for national monuments told TOL that there are competing interpretations of which layer of government is responsible for culture. She says that this confusion has worked ‘to the advantage of those who believe that these institutions should have been destroyed.’ According to Hadžiahmetović: ‘The National Museum survived thanks to financial injections from both Sarajevo Canton and the government of the Federation. But neither the Canton nor the Federation wanted to take on the financial burden systematically since they did not want to support the idea that the National Museum is not an institution of national significance.’ She also said that the commission supported closing the museum to the public as a way to call attention to the untenable conditions there.

Resolving the impasse

The situation did in fact catch the attention of the cultural heritage committee of the Council of Europe and of the culture sub-committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, which organized a meeting in Paris on 2 December to discuss the difficult situation of Bosnia's museums. Bosnia's delegation to the Council of Europe was invited to the meeting, but nobody attended.

Hadžiahmetović didn't find the absence surprising: ‘There has never been any initiative on the part of the Bosnian parliament to resolve the National Museum's status,’ she says. There hasn't been a public outcry against the closure either. Hadžiahmetović says that the only institution that is likely to be able to achieve results in this situation is the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international body tasked with civilian peace implementation. But so far, according to her, the OHR's activities have been insufficient.

The commission, with assistance from the Council of Europe, proposed a state-level law to protect Bosnia's cultural heritage and to resolve the status of institutions that are important for the state, but Hadžiahmetović expects that passage of the law will be obstructed at entity level. According to the news agency ONASA, the entity institutes for the protection of cultural-historical heritage have already complained that the draft law was completely unacceptable since it would create a new ‘elite’ body at state level, taking power away from the entities. The draft is to be debated in parliament in the first half of February.

Historic closure

The row doesn't just affect the National Museum. The Museum of History, just down the street, has also been closed to the public since 1 November. Lack of funds has meant that around 100 artworks damaged by shelling have been left in that state for ten years. The museum's director, Muniba Kaljanac, says: ‘It's terribly cold. The exhibits will be ruined under these conditions. We have no means at all to pay the heating costs. Even ten years after the war nothing has been done to help the museum,’ she complains.

According to Kaljanac, the museum was only able to pay out half salaries during 2004 because of a 45-percent cut in the museum's budget, which is financed by the Federation government and the Canton. That meant that a curator, for example, had a take-home salary of around 150 euro. Kaljanac has also criticized the non-transparent way in which the Federation government's cultural budget is allocated. In 2004, the Federation earmarked around 2 million KM (1 million euro) for institutions that are important to the state. But these seven institutions received only 1,150,000 KM in total, while the Sarajevo Film Festival - a successful, privately sponsored annual event - received 300,000 KM from this fund. Says Kaljanac, ‘The Sarajevo Film Festival has to be supported, but not from our salaries.’

When asked to comment on the issue of cultural funding, the state-level Civil Affairs Ministry declined to speculate on when this situation might be resolved. The ministry did say it regretted the lack of political will to reach a final decision. It was because of that lack of will that the OHR decided to step in last October. OHR and the ministry agreed on the necessity to determine by law the status of the seven cultural institutions, which would also resolve the matter of their funding. These are the National Museum, the Museum of History, the Museum of Literature and Theatre, the Art Gallery, the National and University Library, the Library for Blind and Sight-Impaired Persons, and the Film Library.

Despite the reprieve that allowed for the reopening of the National Museum, things are not looking good in the medium term. Aisa Softić, the director of the National Museum, told a media conference on 31 January that despite the state government's first-time contribution of 1 million KM, the situation would fundamentally remain the same. The historical museum's operating costs alone amount to around 285,000 KM annually (140,000 euro), and the annual costs for all seven institutions are estimated at around 4 million KM.


This article appeared in Transitions Online (Prague), 9 February 2005

On the politics behind the closure of Bosnia's national institutions of cultural memory, see also: Robert Donia, ‘Archives and cultural memory under fire: destruction and the post-war nationalist transformation’


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