BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Text Stefan Jermann
Photography Stefan Jermann, Juan Fabuel
How nationwide treasures, including the 600 year old Jewish “Sarajevo-Haggadah” are abandoned and destined to turn to dust.
Imagine your local museum of national treasures, filled with artifacts and historic pieces from Archeology of the Old Stone Age to the Late Middle Ages, the Natural History, Ethnology and the Library consisting over 250’000 books — simply left on its own. In any other place, people and politicians would demonstrate the streets to get the priorities straight, but here in Sarajevo, things are a bit different.
Via several connections, we are finally able to meet Mirsad Sijaric, who worked until the closing day as an archeology curator specializing in the Mediaeval period. He circles outside the shut down entrance and waits for us. We are running ten minutes late and excuse the delay. He tells us to follow. Through a back entrance we enter the museums yard, which once used to be a green and lush garden, a beautiful escape from city life. There is a pond in the middle and historic thomb-stones everywhere, but what was once a little paradise has clearly seen better days. Sitting on a bench, we are greeted by Ana. Like Mirsad, she was also a curator, specialized in the late Iron Age.
Due to lack of funding, the museum has now been closed for 2 years. Before the museum closed, both Mirsad and Anna still worked there without pay for one full year and then the case was deposited with the supreme court: “After more than two years, they couldn’t find anybody who is supposedly responsible for this matter at the court”, Misrad tells us. The operating cost for the entire museum including salaries for a staff of 60 was a mere 500 thousand Euros, the director only earned around 600 Euros a month, yet, that money didn’t make it anymore to the accounts of the museum. Somewhere along the lines it either got into other hands or it simply evaporated…
During the siege, the National Museum was a strategic place for the Bosnian Army. Many soldiers were located there, Misrad tells us — and one really interesting thing is that not a single of the treasures during that time were stolen. After the war ended, Sweden and the UNESCO helped rebuild the museum, while the local government didn’t support it with one Mark. The building had suffered severe destruction and structural damage. Artillery shells crashed through the roof, over 300 windows were broken and lots of gallery walls destroyed. The museum director during that time, Dr. Rizo Sijari, was killed by a grenade blast in 1993 while he was trying to cover the holes with plastic UN relief sheets.
The major problem of preserving the heritage is that after the war, Bosnia & Herzegovina was divided into two entities. The Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina, comprising a majority of Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats; and the Republic Srpska which is composed mainly of Orthodox Serbs. Both of those entities have their own state governments and their own view and attitude on what should be preserved.
Anna and Misrad take us to the interior of the museum, they show us the west wing first, which is deserted and empty. It is very humid inside and the air is far from enjoyable, there is neither heating nor climate control, basics by which means no museum in the world could operate, because humidity it acts like poison for those ancient artifacts. But where do you store all things now, I ask: “Some we put in the basement, but of course there is also no climate control, its just that at least there is no roof leaking.” Misrad answers with a hopeless smile. We move towards the other wing and there old stones in various sizes are displayed, but it feels more like a storage room than an actual exhibit. As we move to the upper levels, Anna shows us ancient jewelry, beautifully little crafted sculptures and the such and they are all still in good condition. Then, we spot one room with a glass door in front and are being told that this is the only room that has climate control, because some of the most treasured books and documents are located here, but they are both not sure how much longer that bill can be paid.
According to Aida Cerkez from “The Times of Israel” the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has extended an invitation in 2012 to showcase the 600 year old Jewish Haggada, a manuscript that dates back to the 14th century that was the present of a wedding gift of a young couple in Barcelona, Spain is now known as the “Sarajevo Haggadah”. It is a 109 page text handwritten on bleached calfskin, it dates back to the Jewish community in Spain and describes the events ranging from the start of the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt to the death of Moses. The Haggadah is estimated to be worth around USD 700 million.
The lending to the Met in New York did not happen, because simply no one could be found to pay for the special conservatory preparations to take the book to America where it was planned to exhibit the manuscript for three years.
Nonetheless, I speak to Misrad again, a passionate archeologist with all his blood. His state of mind is a mix of joking disbelief and anger at the officials who let it come that far, letting it happen that a museum closes its doors after 123 years in operation. I wonder if it’s not a matter of time until the museums treasures get robbed, looted or destroyed by thieves and Mirsad explains that this is a huge problem, that’s why curators and volunteers are now sleeping in various parts of the museum to protect the museum with their bare hands from intruders: “It would be so easy to get in, just ridiculous, that’s why we have to protect the place with our bare hands.” Says Mirsad.
After the tour “behind closed doors”, Almir Panjeta, a renowned journalist from Sarajevo joins me in the garden of the museum and shows me around the historic tomb-stones. He points out that this garden once used to be a natural breathing zone for people who wanted to enjoy some silence within the city: “I came here every now and then with my wife to enjoy this wonderful garden, I hope they will find a solution to re-open that part of history soon again.”