The National Museum of B&H: Historic Fight for Survival

Photo: Denis Ruvić

Since February 1st, 1888, the National Museum has struggled with financial problems. However, that has not stopped it from becoming one of the most important scientific, educational, and cultural institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Many intellectuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina petitioned for a national museum for decades, finally leading to its establishment in 1888. Historian Semir Hadžimusić says that the political, strategic, and economic goals set by the Austro-Hungarian administration for Bosnia and Herzegovina required European literacy levels and mass education. BiH was also a poorly explored Balkan country at the end of the 19th century, and it attracted many scientists’ curiosity, particularly those from Austria-Hungary. Unfortunately, there were also several “quasi-scientists” interested in the region, and they removed or destroyed many cultural monuments during the first years of the occupation. As a result, more concrete measures were implemented in establishing the museum and preserving BiH’s rich culture. The museum’s first director was Kosta Herman.

“The state supported the museum in numerous ways, including providing material resources and collecting objects and research material for even the lowest-level state agencies. Within a year after its founding, the museum launched a publication entitled The Herald of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (‘Glasnik Zemaljskog muzeja BiH’), which collected curators’ and associates’ research for public consumption. Following the Herald’s publication, it became clear that there also needed to be a German-language museum publication to make the results of the work known to the wider scientific community. This is how a parallel museum publication was launched under the title Scientific Communiqué of Bosnia and Herzegovina (‘Wissenschaftliche Mitteilungen aus Bosnien und der Herzegovina’),” says Hadžimusić.

Today, the National Museum consists of the Library, the Department of Archaeology, the Department of Ethnology, and the Department of Natural Sciences. In addition, a significant area of the museum is occupied by a Botanical Garden, which was a very important element of European museums at the time of its opening.

Photo: Denis Ruvić

Hadžimusić explains how the development of the museum in the Austro-Hungarian state took place: “It was necessary that the space for the museum be adequate, not only to ensure further fruitful work but also because it would be representative of the Austro-Hungarian mission in BiH. According to the famous Karl Paržik, a new National Museum building was built between 1909 and 1913. It was a complex with four pavilions interconnected by terraces, with an inner atrium for the Botanical Garden. Constructing the new museum facility cost nearly two million Austro-Hungarian Krones (equivalent to about 18 million Bosnian marks today). It was among the first, and most important buildings in Southeast Europe built specifically as a museum.”

Ana Marić, Head of the Department of Archaeology, says the basic task of the museum is to collect, care for, and present both cultural and natural artifacts. She also highlights the museum’s pedagogical and social roles in society. In addition to permanent exhibitions in three departments, they also organize thematic collections and exhibition tours. Every year, International Museum Day and the National Museum’s birthday are celebrated with lectures, children’s activities, and similar special events. Since its founding, the museum has been publishing its own magazine entitled Glasnik ZMBiH.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the suspension of almost all museum activities that involve inter-personal contact, some activities have been able to continue. This includes work on collections and exhibitions and scientific and research work.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Prehistoric Period is the name of a permanent exhibition that has been underway for the last few years and is probably the largest museum project since the last war. The last exhibition of its kind was opened to the public in 1988 to celebrate the museum’s centenary. In addition to the two existing permanent exhibitions (covering BiH in the Ancient period and the Middle Ages), the completion of this exhibition will complete the picture of the cultural development of BiH from prehistory to the present day. World-famous material from the sites such as Butmir, Badanj, Donja Dolina, Glasinac, and others will finally be available to the public,” explains Marić.

Photo: Denis Ruvić

Exhibits Available Only at the National Museum

One of the most significant exhibits kept in the National Museum is a copy of the Passover Haggadah, a Jewish illuminated codex known worldwide as the Sarajevo Haggadah (Haggadah in Hebrew meaning “story’ or “narration”).

There are invaluable exhibits about art and culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina in each department, covering a wide historical range. The Department of Ethnology, which is in its own separate building, contains two permanent exhibitions: Dioramas with Models and The Life and Culture of the Urban Populace in 19th Century Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the ground floor of the building is the thematic exhibition Sarajevan Fragments of Safavid Carpets from the 17th century. The first drawing from the Paleolithic period – an engraving on a rock from Badanj cave near Stolac – can be found in the National Museum. One can also find the 1380 Charter of King Tvrtko I Kotromanić addressed to Hrvoje Vukčić Hrvatinić and the Charter of King Stjepan Tomaš from 1459. It is also important to mention the large collections of flora and fauna, consisting of half a million insects and nearly 130,000 plants. The National Museum also houses the richest collection of meteorites in the former Yugoslavia, while the Botanical Garden contains several thousand endemic, indigenous, and exotic plants.

Photo: Denis Ruvić
Photo: Denis Ruvić

I Am the Museum!

Arguments over funding caused the museum’s closure from 2012-2015. Civic action contributed most significantly to resolving this situation. Through the “Ja sam Muzej” (“I am the Museum”) campaign, both Bosnians and internationals were reminded of the difficult situation in which the museum finds itself. The campaign was aimed at changing the public image of the National Museum, principally by pointing out the difficult situation in which the museum workers had found themselves.

The campaign’s webpage says, “Through a series of philanthropic, symbolic and artistic actions, the public in BiH and beyond was sensitized to the value and multicultural character of the collection that the museum preserves and, most importantly, we managed to get the National Museum back on political decision makers’ agendas. The ‘Ja sam Muzej’ project consisted of artistic interventions such as a series of portraits of the Museum workers with insights into their work and life and a set of literary pieces about the museum by prominent BiH and regional authors, writers, and essayists. It was a campaign that involved all the relevant social actors and public figures, and all citizens, sending a message about the urgency of resolving the status of the National Museum.”

After three years, the museum reopened. With all the richness of its diversity, the fight for the museum mirrors the struggle for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future.

Photo: Denis Ruvić


This article was initially published within the first edition of MIR Magazine. MIR, which means ‘peace’ in Bosnian is an annual publication and platform for young inventive people developed by the Post-Conflict Research Center and Balkan Diskurs. It is dedicated to individuals and organizations that left us a legacy of strongly built foundations to continue our fight for peace and justice.

Amira is a trained Balkan Diskurs correspondent from Doboj East. She is a fourth year student of Bosnian language and literature at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Tuzla. She is the author and proofreader of the Bosnian Thought portal. She is primarily interested in topics related to culture, politics, and history.

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