Remembering Sarajevo

Alistair Brown, 06.09.2017
How museums are memorialising conflict in the Bosnian capital
The summer break took me to Bosnia this year - a beautiful country, but one where armed conflict is all too recent, and where continuing political tensions make the memorialisation of the 1992-95 war a matter of ongoing controversy.

I was interested to see how museums were dealing with a war that is finished militarily, but is still alive in the memories and the politics of the country.

It seems to me that Bosnia is far from the only country asking itself these questions recently. Even the US demonstrated this summer that the memory of its civil war still runs deep. But in Sarajevo, I visited two museums that are approaching the issue in very different ways.

In Bosnia’s National Museum, you’d be hard pressed to find any mention of the war that scarred the country. The museum itself has had a tough recent history at the hands of Bosnia’s ethno-nationalist politicians (the museum was closed entirely in 2012 when funding was cut off.) The balancing act of keeping the doors open does not, for the time being, lend itself to an edgy retelling of Bosnia’s hellish war.

The Bosnia National Museum in Sarajevo

Nevertheless, the museum is much revived since its closure in 2012, thanks to the huge efforts of the museum’s staff (many of whom had worked for long periods without pay), as well as an injection of international aid.

It exhibits a wide range of archaeology, natural history and will soon redisplay the star of its collection - the Haggadeh, one of the most important medieval Jewish manuscripts in existence. In a country that is still not sure of its nationhood, the continued existence of the museum is itself a triumph.

Elsewhere, others in Sarajevo are catering to both local and tourist interest in the war. One standout example is The War Childhood Museum (a participant in last year’s MA Conference) which opened at the beginning of 2017, and offers a powerfully moving account of what it was like to grow up in besieged Sarajevo in the early 90s.

50 crowdsourced objects tell the individual stories of 50 children who experienced the traumas of war - an unfinished letter, a mangled jungle gym, a ballet shoe.

Remarkably, their accounts don’t dwell on the responsibility and blame for the horrors that occurred. Instead they focus on the way in which war damages and destroys innocent lives forever. The effect is more powerful than any standard history, yet it also prompts visitors to seek a deeper understanding elsewhere of how such a conflict could have happened.

In a summer where debate on public memory has become a pressing global concern, Sarajevo’s museums are a fascinating example of how a city can begin to deal with the horrors of past wars - the victory of some is simply in persisting, in others by beginning to share the traumas of the recent past.