LONDON, UK—A few years, when I was on assignment in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for Newsweek, I happened to venture into Sarajevo’s National Museum. Situated on the road that during the war was called “Sniper’s Alley”, the place was pretty well run down. The steps up the main entrance were crumbling and it was fairly dark inside. I was not even sure the place was open. But I ventured inside and asked if I could meet with a curator. A few minutes later, the deputy director of the museum, Marica Filipovic, seemingly popped out of nowhere and offered to give me a tour around the exhibition space.
The museum had an interesting exhibition on about Bosnia’s role in World War II. Though the exhibition lacked the panache and slickness that I was accustomed to in Western museums, I felt that the show (and the place itself) had heart. Ms. Filipovic told me that one of the feathers in the cap of the museum is the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated 14th century Jewish manuscript estimated at over $700 million. The museum also houses a valuable entomological collection and Neolithic ceramics excavated at nearby Butmir (where UN troops were stationed after the war).
Ms. Filipovic told me that they were struggling to make ends meet and that it was a real trick to not only keep the museum afloat but to pay employees. Unfortunately, that conversation foreshadowed what happened earlier this month; the National Museum, which survived two world wars and the Siege of Sarajevo, has had to close its doors after 124 years. The National Museum was yet another victim of Bosnia’s political funding crisis, where staff has not been paid and even the electricity bills were being passed over month after month. At the end of September the electricity for the museum was shut off.
On 4 October, almost 1000 people protested the closure. Students, carrying banners like “Shame on You!” and “We Will Not Give Your Our Cultural Institutions” marched from the crumbling museum steps over to the Bosnian parliament and then on to the President’s office. According to bloggers at the scene, the director of the museum, Adnan Busuladzic thanked that crowd for their show of support. “The Museum has always been there for you, but we were forced to take this step,” he said. “The problem is that this country is led by total primitives and idiots.”
Unfortunately, the National Museum’s closing is just one of several cultural institutions that have had to shut down (some permanently, some temporarily) because of political funding stalemates within the Bosnian government. Earlier this year, the National Art gallery closed it’s doors and there are rumors that at least five more of the city’s cultural institutions –including the Historical Museum, the National Film Archive and the Museum of Literature and Theatre Arts—will also be forced to shut down. In January, the National and University Library, housed in the striking Moorish-inspired Vijecnica building which was partially destroyed during the war, had its heating turned off. It reopened in the spring but the electricity was shut off again in the end of September. The library’s director, Ismet Ovcina, told The Guardian newspaper, “The state of Bosnia-Herzegovina failed to transfer a single convertible mark [the Bosnian currency] into our account in 2011, while the federation terminated is financial support in 2012.” Mr. Ovcina, who is suing the state, said he had no other recourse.
As with everything in BiH, the problems all boil down to politics. The war in Bosnia (1992-1995) ended only with the U.S.- brokered 1995 Dayton peace accords. That agreement became the country’s constitution and set up two quasi-autonomous “entities”–the Republika Srpska (usually referred to as the RS) and the Federation, a shaky alliance between Bosnia’s Croats and Muslims. A weak national government is overseen by a U.N.-appointed High Representative. Cultural institutions were to be overseen by the state. But over the years, as antagonism between the two entities has increased exponentially, it has become something of a stalemate over who should fund what. “The problem [is] that it is not clear who is supposed to pay for them after the war,” Maximilian Hartmuth, a member of the editorial board of cultureshutdown.net, a website publicising the problem, wrote to me in an email. “Theoretically, they should have been raised to institutions funded on the state/national level, i.e. by both entities (FBiH and RS), but this has not happened.”
In the end of September, Enver Hadziomerspahic, the director of Ars Aevi (which was to be the national contemporary art museum) resigned over being fed up that there was nowhere to put the collection. The collection includes several works by international artists including Marina Abramovic, Joseph Beuys and Anish Kapoor. Renzo Piano, the renowned Italian architect, had drawn up plans for a modern 21st century museum but funding and lack of political will delayed the project. In July 2011, I visited the collection, which is housed in a run-down Skenderija Centre and is opened to the public on an appointment-only basis. I was shown the beautiful plans for the building, but the big question was that there was no political consensus—nor money— to build it. Amila Ramovic, executive director of Ars Aevi, told me that BiH had a thriving art scene but because there was no institution to display and promote their works, the contemporary art scene was forced to be run by personal initiatives. “We believe soon Ars Aevi will become that stepping stone,” she told me. “It will be one of the main motors and international drivers of Bosnian contemporary art.” Mr. Hadziomerspahic, however, seems to have lost faith that the museum will ever open, especially in the current political and economic climate.
I asked Mr. Hartmuth, an art historian at the University of Vienna, if international organizations like UNESCO have been involved in trying to help get these museums funded through the political stalemate. He wrote that, while there have been meetings attended by representatives of the international community, no statements or concrete projects have so far come out of these discussions. “Overall, the international bodies involved with Bosnia have very limited interest, or competence, in “culture”,” he wrote. “They fail to see that the current impasse is the result of problems left unresolved on another level.”