The Architecture of the Zemaljski Muzej in Sarajevo: A Reconsideration of its History and a Reassessment of its Significance

By Maximilian Hartmuth

It has been an extraordinarily well-kept secret that the Zemaljski Muzej in Sarajevo, housed in a complex built under Austro-Hungarian rule just before WWI, is in fact the most ambitious example of early museum architecture in a vast region between Budapest and Athens, Vienna and Istanbul. Unlike the vast majority of such institutions in Southeast Europe, which are located in buildings converted to museum use from a different original function, the premises of the Zemaljski Muzej were purpose-built. The exceptionality of this fact has gone unnoticed; even more, the circumstances from which the museum’s architectural design emerged have been misunderstood to a considerable extent. This text, which is a much abridged version of an article published by the author in the journal Centropa (XII/2, 2012) as “The Habsburg Landesmuseum in Sarajevo in its ideological and architectural contexts: a reinterpretation,” addresses some of the connections between Sarajevo’s museum as an institution, the monumental architecture of the complex built to house it between 1909 and 1913, and Austro-Hungarian cultural policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In 1888 the Bosnisch-herzegowinisches Landesmuseum opened its doors to the public in the state-owned premises of the Retirement Fund building next to Sarajevo’s almost completed neo-medieval Catholic cathedral. Despite its novelty, at first, interest in the museum on the part of the locals was quite limited. Its first director Constantin Hörmann blamed this on the inadequate space then available to the museum and on the nature of the collections, which still failed to attract large segments of the population. This gradually changed in the early 1890s when interest greatly increased following the rapid growth of the museum’s collections – a result of progressively more systematic and frequent excavations and fieldwork. The museum’s first home, the Retirement Fund building in the center of Sarajevo, had always been understood as an interim solution, and plans for a new museum edifice were already being drawn up in the 1890s. Its construction came to be postponed indefinitely by the government, however, possibly because of different priorities and the expectedly high costs. The idea was put on the agenda again around 1905 by the museum’s staff, the reason for whose urging is perhaps best illustrated in numbers: the museum’s archaeological and ethnographic collection had begun with only 762 items in 1888; by 1906, when the top-level lobbying for a new building began, this collection already held 44,242 items. The challenge this state of affairs posed for the curators in the limited space of the Retirement Fund Building must have been immense.

Once the project was sanctioned by the governor, the Bohemian-born architect Karl Pařik was engaged for the purpose of planning and design. Working in Sarajevo since the 1880s, what characterized this architect’s work was his admirable versatility. Moreover, Pařik was perfectly acquainted with the museum’s planned site, the institution, and the building’s expected form and function. Found today in an urban transition zone between the Gründerzeit corridors of the “Habsburg town” and Yugoslav Sarajevo, at the time of its construction the museum was situated on the western outskirts of the city. While the decision to situate the new museum complex there rather than in a more prominent location in the center of Sarajevo may reflect in part confidence in the continued expansion of Habsburg Sarajevo – the city’s population had more than doubled  in the only three decades between 1879 (21,377) and 1910 (51,919) – it was really largely conditioned by practical considerations. On the basis of an advisory report commissioned from experts from Vienna who visited the planned construction site in 1907, it is clear that one of the ideas behind the design had been to maximize the building’s exposure to natural light – both for economic reasons and also as a safety measure. Accordingly, the museum complex had to be free-standing and was not to be surrounded by other, higher buildings.These considerations seemed to have limited the choice of site to one in flat, undeveloped, and well-connected West Sarajevo. The fact that by 1909 a square meter of land in the very center of Sarajevo had come to cost as much as ten times that of properties in the city’s periphery must also have helped this decision.

At the core of the new museum’s architectural design were four “pavilions” devoted to different functions. The planning of the complex and the structures within it was a testimony to the architect’s ability to respond to a number of challenges specific to the project. The prehistory department, for instance, had to be dimensioned in accordance with the needs for the display to accommodate a ten meter long Neolithic barge. This dictated the design of a space that featured a two-story arcaded room, in the center of which the barge was to be displayed, with smaller objects exhibited around it. The “Antique” (then almost exclusive Roman) department required a spacious lapidarium, which was appropriately decorated in a classicizing style. In contrast to the main entrance hall where regular visitors entered, and which was raised, the lapidarium required a street level entrance, for it was expected that massive new artifacts of stone and marble would be added to the display at a later time. The ethnographic pavilion, on the other hand, had to accommodate a number of traditional Bosnian interiors acquired from “houses of Mohammedan notables” beforehand. A staircase built of cement was covered over with timber and was also modeled on “traditional” staircases. The scientific pavilion was to reflect the department’s quadripartite division (vertebrates, invertebrates, geology, botany), with a view to later expansion. The administrative pavilion, finally, featured offices on the ground floor, with a library and auditorium on the first. A boiler house was accommodated in the basement, where there were also the apartments of the fireman and the caretaker. Hence, it also had to be possible to enter this pavilion directly from street. Responding to the necessary reduction of an initially much grander plan, which was found too costly by the decision-makers, Pařik optimistically (but perhaps with some degree of disappointment) designed an open plan that would not preclude further architectural expansion.

One recent biographer of the architect has interpreted the museum’s conservative design as indicative of a phase in Pařik’s oeuvre which marked a “radical return to Historicism” after  he had experimented with Art Nouveau and  Heimatstil forms.It is doubtful, however, how far the design echoed the architect’s personal development. Pařik himself made clear that the stylistic identity of the complex was to be traced back to the fancy of the long-time governor Béni von Kállay (r. 1882-1903). From the very first, Kállay had wanted the design for a new museum building to be inspired by High Renaissance palazzi.In addition, the stylistic choice should not be surprising in view of a Ringstrasse-mindset that reserved classical and classicizing forms for buildings with governmental and educational functions. The decision to use only sparse ornamentation on the façades was made while the construction was already underway. Here, the architect (Pařik) and the director (Ćiro Truhelka, an erstwhile curator) seem to have clashed: the former apparently preferred his project to be implemented as originally planned, with stucco ornamentation, while the latter promoted a minimalist approach for reasons of cost-effectiveness. The decision to go with “only linear ornament,” and to dispense completely, “at least for the time being,” with figural sculpture, was ultimately made in Vienna by Austria-Hungary’s Joint Finance Minister and Bosnian-Herzegovinian provincial governor.

The resultant building was thus the consequence of all these challenges and the protagonists’ response to them. In light of previous interpretations of the architecture of the museum complex, however, it is highly significant that the decision to sponsor a project with a reduced emphasis on political representation was made at the seat of imperial power. The museum’s architecture was not intended as a symbol of allegiance to Vienna, but conditioned to a large degree by very local conditions and practical considerations. While its “pavilion system” is habitually compared to the Hofmuseum at Vienna, where identical structures dedicated to the display of culture and nature faced each other, Truhelka represented the Hofmuseum as a negative example in his memoirs: the bipartite solution, he thought, did not echo the needs of the collections. At Sarajevo, Truhelka made clear, the planning was undertaken by the curators themselves, for they knew best the needs and potentials of their collections. The contrast with one recent interpretation, according to which the museum’s architecture was a testament to Viennese precedents, its “spare neoclassicism” intended to reflect its provincial setting, could not be more striking. As we have seen, the principal contribution of “Vienna” to the design was the plea to economize. While the architecture of the new museum building in West Sarajevo was certainly understood in part as broadcasting the State’s commitment to knowledge, we must not forget that its construction followed years of official indifference to the needs of the museum. Since its foundation in the mid-1880s, the museum at Sarajevo had become a remarkably dynamic research institution, receiving international praise for its work. It thrived because of the enthusiasm and versatility of its employees and collaborators, whose final success was the new museum complex, inaugurated in 1913.

Leave A Comment