At the Learning Museum Conference in Riga in April 2012 I was introduced to the work of Cultural Heritage Without Borders and especially of Diana Walters in using culture and heritage as a binding and empowering force in post-conflict areas. CHWB’s motto ‘we restore and build communities’ appeals to my background in international development work as well as to my work building relationships between people, and people and culture. You can imagine how thrilled I was when earlier this year I received an invitation from Diana to participate in a conference of CHWB and the Balkan Museum Network in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The conference was last week and it was a convincing display of the strengths and opportunities of culture and heritage under even the harshest conditions. From all over the (western) Balkans culture and heritage professionals had come together to see, meet, do (the title of the conference) and learn from each other’s projects and ideas. I was part of an international team of consultants who facilitated hands-on sessions and worked with the participants to design better projects and exchange knowledge and experiences.
It was enlightening to see how small institutions in countries like Albania, Kosovo and Serbia worked on incredibly powerful projects with shoestring budgets. The ambition and creativity of most participants easily matched that of the world’s largest institutions, while their ingenuity and willingness to cooperate I only remember from working with really professional NGOs. So much can be done with so little.
Unforgettable was the reception in the Historical Museum of BiH. The traces of the war are still overly visible in this museum that struggles for survival. After drinks, music and moving speeches I visited the museum’s exhibition on surrounded Sarajevo, about the siege of the early 1990s, where I was given a tour by enthusiastic people my age who lived through the event. The simple and straightforward exhibition shows everyday objects and photography, some of them quite horrific, others really unexpected. The stories of my peers brought the static displays to life with the typical directness and humour of people from the Balkans. On the makeshift stoves, they told me for instance, you could make a meal and a coffee with one shoe as fuel. After telling me about the experience of eating EU food support (everything but the beef it claimed to be) I felt ashamed about being part of the nations that ignored these wonderful people for years.
It was an honour and a pleasure to work with all these wonderful people on meaningful projects for a couple of days. I hope to be back soon. Sarajevo reaffirmed to me the strong transformative power of culture and heritage and – especially – conversations. Our work can build relationships that go well beyond Facebook likes, even when conditions are tough and budgets non existent. A big thanks to the people of the Balkan Museum Network, Cultural Heritage Without Borders, the team and magnificent professionals participating in the conference last week. I feel reenergised and changed myself.