An attempt to revitalize national history

An attempt to revitalize national history

The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a contemporary witness of the social and political situation of the country. Since the end of the war, there has been no political interest in this cultural institution, not least because the museum stands for a common history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nevertheless, in recent years the Historical Museum has grown into a unique cultural institution.

The Historical Museum of BiH
The Historical Museum of BiH — Image Credits

An attempt to revitalize national history

Due to its modern and purist architectural style, the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina differs significantly from the other buildings in Sarajevo. The square museum complex of white stone slabs was architecturally a design showpiece during the Yugoslavian period. Today it seems to have fallen somewhat out of time. Not least because of the visible bullet holes on the facade and the numerous combat vehicles surrounding the building.

The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was founded in 1945. Since the beginning until 1993 the museum focused on the history of anti-fascism in the Second World War and the cultivation of socialist values. The building embodied the socialist dreams of its time.

During the Bosnian War, the museum was directly on the front line. The museum exhibits were fortunately saved from destruction, but the building was severely damaged. The traces of the war are still clearly visible on the facades of the building.

With the end of the war and the Dayton Peace Agreement, the Constitution stipulated that the Historical Museum, as a state institution, would be subordinated to the two entities, Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during a transition phase. The same applied to the six other national cultural institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Reorientation of the Historical Museum

The Dayton Agreement divided the country into two entities: the ethnic Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The two are linked by joint state-level institutions, including a tripartite presidency. This division of the country into two entities marked also the end of a common history of Bosnia and Herzegovina beyond ethnic borders. The Historical Museum was therefore forced to reposition itself. "It seemed to be an impossibility because we were aware that a common heritage was lost during the war," said Elma Hasimbegović, director of the Historical Museum.

In a country where the governing parties fight daily against the idea of unity, it is not surprising that since the end of the war the Historical Museum has struggled to assert or even strengthen a national identity as an institution. In an interview with Elma Hasimbegović, it becomes clear how the museum and its history after the war itself became a witness to the social and political situation of the country. In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are no political efforts to create a common identity. Rather, the nationalist parties are engaged in maintaining ethnic division.

Culture has no political priority at central government level in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is no Ministry of Culture at this level and therefore no contact for the cultural institutions. The transition phase continues even 23 years after the end of the war, and it remains unclear who is responsible for maintaining the national cultural institutions.

After numerous unsuccessful initiatives by cultural workers to regulate the responsibility of the national cultural institutions - and thus also the financing - a continuing frustration has spread. The National Museum, which is located right next to the Historical Museum, even had to be closed for almost three years. It was only thanks to public pressure that the National Museum was able to reopen in 2015.

A place of joint dialogue

"For us, there were two choices: Either we resign ourselves or we decide to take matters into our own hands and create something of our own," says Elma Hasimbegović. In 2012, the Historical Museum team decided to move forward and create a place of dialogue in the museum. "We wanted to create a place where people could think about the past, present and future based on the museum's collection," says Elma Hasimbegović.

Thanks to the numerous projects and the commitment of the team, the Historical Museum has become a unique cultural institution in Bosnia and Herzegovina in recent years. However, since not even minimal financing is secured, the financial situation of the museum remains precarious. Accordingly, every year the team is forced to develop new projects and find donors for them. The projects meet with great approval, but this does not cover the basic costs such as wages and infrastructure. "That's why we still can't afford to heat the building in winter," Elma Hasimbegović explains and continues: "The financial situation is a big challenge for us, but there's no reason to give up.

The latest exhibition "Mir sa ženskim licem" is just one example of the great work that the Historical Museum team is doing to maintain the spirit of the museum. The exhibition tells of women from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina and their unusual life stories. Numerous women from all over the country travelled to the opening. The people stood in the entrance hall crowded together and waited eagerly for the curator's introductory words. The pride of the protagonists in being part of this exhibition was notable. While one became aware of what Elma Hasimbegović meant by the fact that the museum had become a unique place of dialogue and encounter.

For hbs by Laure Meier