Among the many powerful memories of my first visit to Sarajevo in the spring of 2013, is the front door of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The museum was closed, and had been so for quite some time already, a bold sign unmistakingly told everyone who cared to walk by. And although 40 employees of the museums didn’t receive pay, they kept coming to work to keep the museum and its collections safe from harm, prevent decay and do basic maintenance. I remember being in a bar late one night with some local museum professionals, when one of them had to leave to take the graveyard shift at the museum. Still, this commitment to cultural work stands out to me.
Late last year, after an impressive public campaign and through the work of many exceptional (museum) professionals, the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina reopened. This year, the employees have been awarded a Europa Nostra award for dedicated service for their extraordinary work, unpaid, to keep the museum accessible. A happy ending, for now, to an exceptional museum story, which may hold some relevant lessons for all museums and cultural institutions that one day may be faced with tough economic or political conditions.
The process towards the reopening of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina started when the independent cultural agency AKCIJA, together with photographer Zijah Gafić, decided to make portraits of the employees of the museum, who had the time had been working voluntarily for years to keep the public cultural infrastructure in place. Their campaign, #jasammusej or I am the museum was not meant to create sympathy for the workers, but simply to show a wider public that although the museum was closed, a lot of work was going on behind the closed doors.
Quickly however, the campaign gained speed. The general public became interested in the work of the museum employees, and schools, local businesses and individuals started taking voluntary shifts in the museum. AKCIJA documented these shifts, among others with a series of YouTube videos. To keep up with all the rapid developments, they also moved their offices to the museum. In addition to the portraits of the employees, they worked with notable Bosnian-Herzegovinian and regional writers and essayists on literary interventions.
Ultimately, the public campaign, combined with diplomatic efforts (also by the public) helped ensure the reopening of the museum late 2015, and sort its funding situation at least for the coming years. Also, it proved and proves beyond doubt that the museum plays a relevant role in the lives of many people, although they may not have been aware of that until they were explicitly called upon to help the museum reopen.
I believe the case of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina shines a light on the position of cultural institutions in our future societies. Although museums and other institutions play an important role in communities and societies, our audiences can forget about us when our struggles and focus removes us from the public awareness. Even a bold banner becomes invisible if you’ve seen it a couple of times. A future-proof institution continuously reconnects with its communities, and keeps them engaged in creative and innovative ways. People care about museums, if museums care about people.
There is also an important message for cultural professionals in this story, and not just that they have to work for free if the going gets tough. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many of the stakeholders in the process of reopening the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, most recently in Albania where they presented their success story to their local peers. They are outgoing, energetic, idealistic. They are highly committed and believe firmly in the social impact of culture, heritage and art. They are as much activists as curators or educators or registrars.
Reflecting on stories from the employees of the National Museum and other cases in the region, Museums change lives co-author David Anderson mentioned that much like doctors and teachers, being a museum professional should go well beyond the 9-to-5, and well beyond a finely defined job description. Lacking an Hippocratic Oath for cultural heritage work, the responsibility for such an attitude lies with the individual museum professional. And although I surely hope none of us will ever have to work for years without pay, the employees of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and their supporters have shown the wonderful things that can happen when people are forced to take this responsibility.
Header image by Jennifer Boyer from Fredrick, Maryland, USA.