Opinion: Culture Shutdown : One Year On



A year ago today Sarajevo’s National Museum closed for the first time since it was opened by the Austro-Hungarian authorities in 1888. Other museums remain just about open, but can do little more than keep the doors from closing.

Government commissions of inquiry are forming with all the speed of a Lada with a broken gearbox, and a court case is pending, to try and resolve the legal position and responsibility for BiH’s national museums and collections. The courts involved are handling the case like a chestnut seller with over-heated produce. The political wrangling, hand-wringing, shoulder-shrugging and general evasion of responsibility looks set to continue for some time yet.

Museums, galleries, and cultural tourism are absolutely central to the future prosperity of BiH. They are central not only for the revenue that they can raise, for the jobs they can provide, from international tourism, but also for the image they project of BiH abroad, and for confronting and challenging much of the stereotyping and ignorance concerning some of the historical realities of the BiH story. A year on from the crisis that closed the doors, no meaningful solution is in sight.

It is too much to expect that the city will have interesting contemporary art, music, theatre to attract visitors, and develop a local scene, if all the resources available to culture workers,  are the enthusiasm of the people involved, and the occasional grant from abroad. In 2014, millions of KM will be spent in Sarajevo remembering  the events of 1914, and to a lesser extent 1984, but this will seriously mask the catastrophic failings and shortcomings in funding for culture and the arts in the city. Moreover, when the carefully choreographed kitsch has been paid for next year, there will be nothing left in the pot for cultural events here for 2015 and beyond, unless unexpectedly radical change comes about soon.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, no one is expecting millions of KM to sit about doing nothing. For small amounts of money, cleverly invested, this city could have one of the most compelling museum sectors and a rich and diverse contemporary art world, the equal of anywhere else in Europe. Without this money, artists, actors, musicians, writers will either stay out of loyalty or attachment, or join the tragic brain drain of intelligent people leaving the country in the years to come. That there seems to be little or no understanding of this blindingly obvious point, is one of the most frustrating aspects of the whole “culturicide” happening in this country at present. If the people in charge lack the intelligence to see what is in front of their noses, how is it reasonable to expect them to provide a solution?

Every citizen, directly involved or not, knows the position of the museums, galleries,and National Library. Many solutions to the problems, both traditional and innovative, have been suggested, by a wide range of people from museum visitors to journalists to curators and directors. At present, though, these people are howling into a roaring windtunnel.

But who will implement one of these solutions? and when? and, in the meantime, do politicians seriously expect these sites to continue to exist on little more than fresh air and weak “maybe next year” promises, or “sorry I can’t do anything, it’s not my job” excuses? Is it somehow acceptable that people have gone to work for 22 months and not been paid a pfennig?

Sarajevo is often characterised as being the place where the twentieth century began and ended. Time is running out if our culturally rich, diverse, wonderful home city is not to be remembered as the first place in the twenty first century to squander all of its culture-saturated inheritance through apathy and ignorance, to forget everything simply because it couldn’t be bothered remembering. 

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