A Padlock on Culture: The Closed Bosnian National Museum

Empty display cases in the archeology section of the Bosnian National Museum which museum keepers said were emptied for the safekeeping of artifacts in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 15, 2014.  The museum closed its doors on October 4, 2012 after employees had worked one year without salaries, many of whom continue to work without salaries to this day; the Bosnian National Museum is short the minimum 700,000-800,000 Euro it would need to keep its doors open.

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the resulting Dayton Peace Accord, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia. (Read all posts in this series.)

Display cases sit empty at The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. The museum closed its doors on October 4, 2012, due to political gridlock that led to a shortage of funding. The employees had worked one year (and many continue to work) without salary. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Sarajevo’s cultural institutions were once the glue that bound the citizens of this historic metropolis. But in the past few years, some have shuttered as politicians bicker over their funding.

During the Bosnian War, “culture was a form of resistance,” Asja Mandić, a curator and art history professor at the University of Sarajevo told me. “Women were wearing high heels and running from snipers to get to openings.”

But in the power-sharing agreement that ended the conflict, Bosnia was left without a national culture ministry. Bosnia’s new sub-states, the Federation (dominated by Muslims and Croats), and the Republika Srpska (dominated by Serbs), were to each support their own, separate cultural agencies. There was no body responsible for the upkeep of a multicultural legacy. Over a dozen national institutions ranging from the National Art Gallery to the Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired Persons were left in a legal limbo.

The institutes scraped by for years on grants from private donors, international organizations and local authorities, —> Read More