On a steamy July evening in 2012, I arrived at the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo for an independently organized event entitled “Culture Shutdown.” While this museum’s name leads one to anticipate a place of grand stature to chronicle Sarajevo’s and Bosnia’s position in world history—from the outbreak of World War I to the city siege at the epicenter of the 1990s Bosnian war—what one finds is a crumbling façade juxtaposed next to a gleaming shopping center. The museum building itself is intentionally its own exhibit, left with its battle scars from nearly 20 years prior.
I happened on this event somewhat accidentally, while conducting research on a different subject. It was collaboratively organized by young professionals who work in the arts, including Dr. Azra Akšamija, Assistant Professor in Art, Culture and Technology at M.I.T., originally from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Joining her were members of the New York-based artist and on-line magazine collective, Triple Canopy, one of whom, Molly Kleiman, had lived and worked in Sarajevo.
Too hot to meet inside, the group garnered folding chairs and convened in a small circle under the trees. Having grown up in a country with no ministry of culture, where the arts are under assault whenever fiscal resources are tight (the United States), I was accustomed to the ongoing struggle for support for the arts and museums. But my country’s problems dimmed in comparison to what unfolded in this meeting: in a matter of weeks or months, seven of Bosnia’s top national cultural institutions were likely to close their doors.
As we talked, the stakes involved became clearer. This means major works of art with no storage oversight to protect them from summer heat or winter cold. It means national archeological treasures locked away with no guards to keep thieves and vandals at bay. It means no exhibits or cultural events for public education or tourism. It means the deterioration of shelves and shelves of books. It means buildings left to crumble. And it means no work for scores of these institutions’ employees.
Several of those employees were sitting there under the trees; looks of impending doom graced their faces, some had gone without pay for months. I began to envision irreparable physical damage and immeasurable social costs. Intense debates over the problem communicated the depth of frustration, cynicism, and desperation that these individuals felt. The commitment of time and energy by this small group of people to save the very institutions that had not even been dispersing their regular paychecks was striking.
A short historical excursion for those who could use a reminder: Bosnia/Herzegovina was one of the six republics that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia (currently on the way to becoming seven with the independence of Kosovo), torn apart tragically by ethnic wars in the 1990s. The international peace accord brokered in Dayton, Ohio in 1995 established a Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina with two internal regions with some political autonomy from one another: the Republic Srpska, where the majority are ethnic Serbs, and a Bosniak/Croat Federation where ethnic Bosnian (or Bosniaks) and Croats form the majority. In this treaty, no minister of culture was formally established for Bosnia; therefore, cities like Sarajevo had to muster up their own resources to keep museums and libraries in the black—including those with the word “national” in the title. Inhabiting the civil-society NGO sector, these institutions are dependent on occasional small grants from national government bodies and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Back in the museum courtyard, I learned more about the problems: Continued ethnic tensions help define standoffs, as Croats and Serbs view the Sarajevo-based institutions as privileging the representations of Bosniaks. In contrast to this perception, advocates emphasize that the collection in this museum originated under Austro-Hungarian rule and developed further during Communist Yugoslavia. Although required by the Dayton Accords, none of the governmental entities of the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federation, or the canton of Sarajevo have taken a public stand on these institutions. All seven institutions have suffered from the fact that they have no official status or owner, and no legal entity responsible for funding and leadership. Generally, there is a huge dearth of funds to cover basic operating costs. Staff morale has been extremely low.
Organizers led a brainstorming session on how to advocate for solutions. Azra Akšamija introduced a website under construction, CultureShutdown.net, which she started with historian Maximilian Hartmuth, and would serve as an activist platform to protest the closure of these institutions. Since July, the website developed further, gathered contributors (including yours truly), and inserted its presence into the web as a virtual protest. If the website title’s font design, suggesting yellow and black police tape, seems histrionic to the viewer, here are reasons to justify it, the current status of each of these seven institutions:
The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Closed on October 4, 2012 after 124 years.
The National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Operates with limited capacity, in debt for all utilities and no staff salaries for more than one year.
The Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Hosts temporary exhibits only; no access to permanent exhibition or library since July 2012.
The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Currently open; no legal status for 17 years.
The Museum of Literature and Theatre Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Currently open, but in debt and preparing to close.
The National Film Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Currently open, but cannot appoint a board without a governmental body to sponsor it.
The National Library for the Blind and Partially Sighted Persons: Currently open with limited capacity, but also cannot appoint a board.
There is much grist for sociological reflection here, including the central place that such institutions play in representing collective identities, encoding histories into public memory, and envisioning alternative futures through the arts. There are questions about the viability of a modern society with a huge hole where one of its institutional spheres should be: its cultural sphere. In fact, a 2002 Council of Europe experts report gave such institutions a centrality and urgency that transcended other European countries:
“In no country in Europe is cultural policy more important than in Bosnia Herzegovina. Culture is both the cause and the solution to its problems. Cultural arguments were used to divide the country, yet culture might be able to bring people back together again through initiating cultural programs and activity that increase mutual understanding and respect.”
Given that the Council of Europe currently has an office in the shopping center within shouting distance of the Historical Museum, this body is literally a neighbor to one institution in jeopardy.
CULTURESHUTDOWN organizers fear the worst: “There is a danger that these institutions will ‘dissolve in silence.’” Among the actions that individuals are taking are occupation-style physical protests: NGO organizing for self-governing institutions, and involvement by the International Council of Museums, among others. Dr. Akšamija has initiated an ambitious world-wide protest action for March 4, the five -month anniversary of the closing of the national museum: She is calling on museums and galleries across the world to “X” out a major work of art using police caution tape.
These activists welcome your voice, your ideas, your resources and your publicity for the cause. If you can, make a visit to Sarajevo. Sample its history, stroll through the winding old-city streets lined with arts and crafts vendors, take in its international film festival, sip a drink in Caffe Tito behind the Sarajevo History Museum, stop at its sobering memorials to the war victims, and sample its fresh cuisine in a hillside restaurant as calls to prayer ricochet across the green mountains and valleys in the sunset. Then ask yourself how this place could possibly be without its core cultural institutions.