Archives and Cultural Memory under Fire : Destruction and the Post-war Nationalist Transformation

By Robert J. Donia, University of Michigan

“The Historical Museum (formerly the Museum of the Revolution) in Sarajevo was a dismal place to visit in May 2004. The lights were off and the heat was not working. The museum’s director and staff were huddled over lukewarm coffee in a corner of the conference room. The museum’s employees welcomed the foreign visitor warmly, as they always had, but staff members were deeply preoccupied with the prolonged financial crisis facing their institution. None of them had been paid in five months. The museum had received nothing of the paltry appropriation designated for it in the budget of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and an appeal for a partial payment for sustenance had just failed. The staff openly discussed the possibility of closing the doors and going home.

A few hundred meters away, the visitor encountered a very different situation. The Bosniak Institute, a structure completed in the late 1990’s, is an architectural tour-de-force, combining modern elements with a preserved sixteenth century Turkish bath in the heart of the new edifice. The lavish quarters include a meeting hall and several small conference rooms adorned with working fountains and exquisite Oriental tiles. A temperature-controlled library holds carefully preserved books and manuscripts. Readers are served by professional librarians and archivists using computerized finding aids. Anywhere in the world, the Bosniak Institute would be a researcher’s dream.

The Historical Museum and Bosniak Institute represent extremes in the transformation of memorial institutions in Sarajevo that began shortly after Bosnia’s multiparty elections of 1990. Orchestrated by the nationalist parties that prevailed in that election, the changes threaten to destroy the custodial institutions of Bosnia’s richly diverse history and culture. The destruction of that legacy began with artillery and mortar assaults in wartime, but its continuation by other means in the postwar era threatens to ruin much of the country’s historical heritage as recorded in documents and artifacts.”

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