War, peace, bread and land

Sharon Heal , 30.05.2019
Can museums provide the tools and foundations for peace and human
What role can a museum play in a country rent asunder by divisions and intolerance? No, I’m not talking about post-EU election Brexit Britain – although it could equally apply. I’m talking about Bosnia and Herzegovina, which I visited last week to speak at the European Museum of the Year Award (Emya) conference in Sarajevo.

It seems odd that in the UK we know relatively little about the causes and impact of the Bosnian conflict, which saw a three-year siege of the city and over 5,000 civilian deaths.

The impact of the 1992-1996 conflict can still be seen across Sarajevo – from the buildings scarred by sniper fire to the commemorative slabs in the pavement marking where the bombs landed on the city streets. 

The Emya has evolved over the past five years, putting more emphasis on the social purpose of museums and community engagement. It provides a forum for sharing innovation across a range of types of museum. And at a time when the UK is in turmoil over its relationship with the EU, it provides a welcome opportunity to be able to discuss best practice and contemporary issues with colleagues from across Europe. 

War Childhood Museum

As well as hearing from museums as diverse as Paneum, the Wonder Cabinet of Bread in Austria and the Verdun Memorial in France, the conference also addressed big questions about the role of museums in society today. 

Perhaps because of the location, the conference kept returning to a central question – whether museums can provide the tools and foundations for peace and human rights.

The conference was hosted by the War Childhood Museum, which won the Council of Europe Museum Prize in 2018. This small but influential museum grew from a research project gathering the memories of young people who were affected by the war. The museum is located in a quiet residential street and its plain exterior belies the powerful objects and stories within. 

From the very first object, a swing that was hung in a basement so that it could be used safely away from the sniper fire, to the monkey bars ripped apart by a bomb, the museum delivers a potent message about the impact of war on young lives. It also has a clear mission to use its objects and stories to campaign for peace for future generations.

Next year the conference will be in Cardiff, hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) and local museums in Wales. Perhaps by then we will have more certainty about our future in Europe. I suspect there will be no less impetus for us all to use our collections to explore the critical issues in society.