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Sarajevo Museum in Peril

Permanent closure would amount to loss of collective memory for Bosnians.
By IWPR staff in Sarajevo
  • National Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina. (Photo: Mirza Ajnadzic)
    National Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina. (Photo: Mirza Ajnadzic)
  • "Museum closed" sign. (Photo: Mirza Ajnadzic)
    "Museum closed" sign. (Photo: Mirza Ajnadzic)

Earlier this month, Sarajevo marked the 125th anniversary of the National Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Instead of celebrating, though, people came to light 125 candles and lay the same number of roses at the museum’s front entrance. 

They could not go inside, because the museum has been closed to the public since last October due to lack of funding.

Ajisa Softic, a former director of the museum, said this was probably the saddest anniversary ever for this national-level institution.

“This museum contains so many memories of so many people,” she said, “and by closing it down, we are forgetting our past.”

Sarajevo Museums in Peril - Video by Mirza Ajnadzic

The National Museum survived two world wars and the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, but had to close its doors to the public on October 4 last year.

Its management, desperate to draw international attention to years of chronic underfunding, nailed wooden planks to the front door and placed a large banner reading “Museum Closed” above it.

Museum director Adnan Busuladzic said he had no other choice. His staff of 62 had not been paid in 13 months and could not carry on working for nothing.

He noted that curators would continue looking after the exhibits, even though the museum would not be open to the public until further notice.

After the 1992-95 war, the National Museum spent years staggering along with inadequate funding. Often there was not enough money to cover staff salaries and the electricity and heating bills. Over time, the institution accumulated debts.

Observers see the National Museum as the victim of the arrangements made under the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995 but also generated multiple tiers of government – state, entity, cantonal and municipal.

Since Bosnia does not have a state-level ministry of culture, the National Museum is trapped in a legal limbo. None of the different levels of government considers itself responsible for maintaining the institution.

The same applies to six other major national institutions in Bosnia – the National and University Library, the Art Gallery, Historical Museum, National Film Archive, Museum of Literature and Theatrical Arts, and the National Library for the Blind and Partially-Sighted. All are in danger – their collections and premises are at risk of deterioration, skilled staff are liable to leave, and the threat of permanent closure looms over them.

Some experts suspect that the National Museum’s closure is a direct consequence of nationalist efforts to undermine anything that embodies the idea of Bosnia as a state.

“There can be no Bosnia and Hercegovina if there are no common institutions at the state level – at least the Bosnia and Hercegovina that I advocate for,” writer Ferida Durakovic wrote on, an online platform set up last year to raise awareness about the alarming state of Bosnia’s cultural institutions.

“In this horrible legal and political vacuum, everyone is snatching a bit for themselves, because in the eyes of their own ethnic group they will become greater and more important if they maim Bosnia and Hercegovina and steal from it that which should be the property of all of us,” Durakovic wrote.

Jasenko Pasic, a young Bosnian actor, fears that the loss of the National Museum might result in Bosnia itself losing its identity.

“Culture is an essential element of every society. I think the main problem here is the cold war we are witnessing today, a war whose aim is to destroy the identity of this country,” he said. “If all cultural institutions of national importance are closed down, what will remain of Bosnia?”

Established in 1888, the National Museum has four pavilions containing a 250,000-volume library, an extensive display of folk costume, a renowned entomological collection, and unique ceramics from the Neolithic excavations at nearby Butmir.

Its most treasured possession, though, is the Sarajevo Haggadah, the oldest Sephardic Jewish document in the world, thought to have been created in Barcelona in the 14th century. The illuminated manuscript, valued at seven million US dollars, was brought to Sarajevo by Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

Before the National Museum closed its doors, the Haggadah was on public display only four times a year. According to Bosnian media reports, in November 2012, the Metropolitan Museum in New York offered to exhibit the Haggadah on loan for three years and show it to an estimated 20 million visitors.

Despite this lucrative offer, the management of the National Museum and several members of Bosnia’s commission for preserving national monuments decided against loaning the Hagaddah, arguing that there were no guarantees that it would be returned, especially if the museum’s temporary closure becomes permanent.

Earlier this week, two curators from the Metropolitan visited Sarajevo to discuss the future of the Haggadah with the director Busuladzic. No agreement was reached on sending the exhibit to the United States, and it remains locked in the National Museum’s safe.

Sarajevo’s mayor, Alija Behmen, is against lending the Haggadah to any institution outside Sarajevo.

“The city council, and I personally as mayor of this city, refuse to even consider any initiative to remove the Haggaddah from Sarajevo even for one minute,” Behmen said in a recent statement.

The Jewish community in Bosnia, led by Jakob Finci, argue that turning down the Metropolitan’s offer will prove a great loss to the whole country.

“As a member of the Jewish community and a citizen of Sarajevo, I am very sorry that we have missed an opportunity to show the Haggadah to a great number of people by exhibiting it in the Metropolitan Museum,” Finci told local media last week. “This document is a great example of what we in Bosnia are most proud of – tolerance, understanding and readiness to help one another in the most difficult times. But now it is locked away, of no use to anyone”.

Busuladzic says loaning out the Haggadah would not solve the National Museum’s problems. He says that it is up to the Bosnian authorities to decide who is responsible for this and other cultural institutions of similar importance.

“We are now in an impossible situation,” Busuladzic told Radio Free Europe earlier this week. “If something doesn’t change soon, then not just the Haggadah, but all the exhibits from the National Museum should be given to the Metropolitan.”

Mirza Ajnadzic and Ajdin Kamber, who are IWPR-trained reporters in Sarajevo, contributed material for this report.

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