Bosnia and Herzegovina needs our help

Marcus Weisen, 01.12.2014
I have just become a witness to a story of exceptional museum resilience. This happened in October, when I was a keynote speaker at the Balkan Museum Network’s Balkan Museums Without Barriers conference in Sarajevo.

The story unfolded in a museum at night. Many participants joined the tour of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were ushered through a back entrance by silent staff. Exhibition rooms were lit up as we entered, only to fade back into darkness soon after.

We saw an exquisite neo-classical building, astounding mineral collections and low-cost natural history displays, with snow expertly imitated by humble cotton and broken glass.

The craftsman/designer had not been paid for his work. In fact, no staff member has been paid since the museum was forced to shut two-and-a-half years ago because of a lack of funding.

Most staff have been coming to the museum on a rota system since the closure, spending perhaps a day every other week there to offer a reduced service. Theirs is a resilient and constructive protest in favour of culture and education.

Soon after the end of the 1992-95 war, Cultural Heritage Without Borders – a non-governmental organisation dedicated to preserving cultural heritage affected by conflict, neglect or natural disaster – became the first organisation to reconnect museum professionals, who then created the Balkan Museum Network. It also supported the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina with war repairs.

Clearly, the commitment to culture so poignantly expressed by staff at the national museum and nurtured by the Balkan Museum Network and Cultural Heritage Without Borders is an inseparable part of peace-building and civil society development in the western Balkans.

The complex legacy of the war and settlement involved many parties in the Balkans, western powers and the United Nations. The Dayton Peace Agreement, which sealed the end of the war, resulted in a system of decision making that starves seven major cultural institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina of stable funding.

The two autonomous entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina lack the willingness to commit funding, while the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have jurisdiction over the cultural sector under the constitutional setting.

Thriving and inclusive cultural institutions give meaning to peace. The oversight of culture in the settlement is the responsibility of all powers involved. Cultural organisations in Europe need to raise their voice and call for a solution.

One day, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s decision makers will be proud of the outstanding heritage they hold in trust for society.

Marcus Weisen is a freelance museum and heritage accessibility consultant


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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
07.12.2014, 23:41
Marcus, have they moved out of the building just down the road from the Hilton Hotel (where the journalists all hung out during the siege of Sarajevo). I remember being the visitor at what was almost a pop-up museum (though no one called them that then) and really enjoyed the displays on their recent history, as well as the museum in the tunnel that provided the link to the airport. Sadly, it is not just the museums that are stuck in neutral since the Dayton Agreement, the whole country has been.