A CULTURAL SIEGE OF HISTORY
Text + Photography by Stefan Jermann
Elma Hasimbegovic’s handshake is firm: “Welcome to the Historical Museum of Sarajevo.” Elma finishes her cigarette while we have a little chat on the stairs of the main entrance. I am still not quite sure whether that entrance is part of the show, because I spot grass growing out of the stairs and bullet holes in the facade. It looks a bit like a backdrop of a movie — one that has seen the faces of war and has not recovered since.
We sit down in Elma’s office that comprises of a few basic looking pieces of furniture, it feels like time stood still here, but Elma takes it with a smile:” You know, after ’95 nobody took care of the funding responsibility for the museums in the ministries. There are a total of seven museums and we all face the same problem, we are all on the verge of being shut down. Everybody gets more funding than museums here, even NGO’s.”
Lets face it; after all, most museums around the world are struggling unless generous donors support them. But, I am wondering: Isn’t a historical museum to be preserved and taken care of in a special sort of manner by the governing authorities? Cause after all — that’s where the history, thus its identity of that country is archived. Elma agrees, but she points out the various people and parties that govern Sarajevo and the lack of interest in presenting that history to a wider audience makes it tough to keep doors open. She reaffirms: ”Heritage is important!”
Before the war, there was a staff of 42 people. It has shrunk to a mere 16 and most of them like Elma work for a symbolic salary. She elaborates that the museum mostly attracts tourists, but the goal is to have more locals visit as well: “Marijin Dvor is becoming a new center of Sarajevo and that is good for us.” But still, how do they manage to operate a museum with basically no money. And I mean if you look at the place you will understand what I mean with no money. The infrastructure dates back to World War 2 and I doubt that this place has ever been renovated: “In the winter we had so much snow on the roof, it was about to collapse and if its raining too hard, we place buckets everywhere to collect the water.” Elma says that as if it was the most normal thing. It’s not something to be upset about. After all who should she be mad at, there is nobody in charge at the government, she and her small staff are pretty much left on their own.
This museum feels like a sailboat that survived countless battles, has been severely hit and damaged, but manages to keep its course with a courageous captain who attempts to create things out of nothing. Institutions and curators from all over the world have been paying attention to this young and charming lady, managing and protecting a substantial history: ”Elma explains that there is support such as from the British Council or individuals who help, even the people from the “Tate” have been here to have a look. Last year, we had the international war photographer Ron Haviv come by and as he saw that his photographs were badly damaged, he replaced them at no cost.
Elma takes me trough the museum. Right at the entrance she points out a collection of photographs by Jim Marshall. He photographed some of the most important locations during and right after the war and then he juxtaposed that exact same shot with a photograph taken about a decade later. Those photographs have gone viral around the web and given huge awareness of the destruction, but also are proof that rebuilding has taken place. Then we walk to the upper level where a large part is dedicated to the siege and how people lived their lives during that time. Canned foods supplies, self-built radios, improvised stoves and historic documents and photographs depict a dark chapter of Sarajevo. Despite the fact that the exhibition feels very much improvised, it is amazing on how with such little means, the impact to the viewer is enormous and moving in its own way. Then we enter the “archive” of historic documents, which is not open to the public, and Elma elaborates that there are lots more documents in the basement. The room lacks any professional climate control and the shelves and books feel deserted. I hate to make comparisons, but any library at a primary school in a developed western country has a better library/archive. But what can one do if there is absolutely zero money to improve the situation, even worse if there is no interest from the governing side to do something against it. Elma raises her eyebrows. She is well aware of the situation, but to improve infrastructure more funding is needed, substantially more funding…
Elma remarks that the museum is operating on such a low financial level, it could send a wrong message to the authorities, because they simply think that if “they” manage to do it, why would we want to support them more? In the end it is a fight on two frontiers: One is to keep the day-to-day operation running and the other is to manage to get the minimal financial support from somewhere. Every other museum director would have probably given up at this stage, but Elma Hasimbegovic is not exactly your “ordinary” CEO of a museum: She runs the place with lots of idealism, she cares for this place as if it was her home. The staff and everybody supporting the museum are more like family than people on a pay roll. Those are probably the main reasons why the doors of the historical museum have not been shut down yet.
When being asked what the future plans for the museums are, I get a bold and honest answer: ”We do not think about the future, we operate on a day to day business. This is a cultural siege! You have to be extremely resourceful in order to make the day-to-day life; it is in fact very much the same as during the war!