How to talk about the unspeakable?

Peter Aronsson

The Balkan wars in the 1990’s are ever-present for a visitor to Balkan. Mostly as silences. An unspoken mix of allegations, guilt and suffering is hard to give a format in ordinary cultural institutions and polite society.

In Europe the Second World War and especially the Holocaust has been the absolute historical ground Zero, a pivotal point never to be returned to, an indisputable motivation for democratic cooperation – And yet Srebrenica occurred, Sarajevo was besieged and Belgrade bombed. Can this pass without being spoken, dealt with?

Of course not – but how, by whom and when?

Terrible films and documentaries are available, but I have looked upon how these topics are dealt and not dealt with at some public institutions, national museums in Belgrade and Sarajevo. Mostly the topic is not touched upon at all. The ground is still to dangerous, full of possible complications, unsolved matters, geopolitical issues. Occasionally and in certain institutions there are distinct statements.

Certainly there is a consensus on the fact that there has been violence. There is likewise a strong parallel consensus that both Serbia and Bosnia are firmly rooted as medieval states that awaited liberation. Here consensus ends and this is perhaps a clear sign that there is a long road to go where cultural institutions needs to be involved in negotiating process of truth and reconciliation. As for now these have only rarely resulted in visible forms of cooperation. They are still in the process of defending and accusing but sometimes also planning exchange and joint ventures on secure grounds of displaying for example every-day life in Ottoman and Habsburg days.

In Serbia bombed ministerial buildings are kept as an open wound to show what is named “NATO aggression”. A new monument over two killed children in a popular park gives a face to these losses. In the Military museum a new part first demonstrates Serbian contribution to UN missions, and then goes on to tell the history of in their view illegal separatism in Croatia, weapons with Serbian blood on them, captured NATO equipment and again evidence of the “aggression” ends the exhibition which started with the dawn of Slav people coming to Balkan in pre-history.

In Sarajevo the National History museum is adequately half in ruins and tells a strong story of suffering during the siege. But the institution has a hard time to survive – people understandably rather join Caffé Tito on stairs below for music and a drink.

The national cultural institutions are in both states in great despair: many are closed. A lack of funds is the formal motivation, but I would say that other reasons are as important: the insecurity of which future to pursue makes the question of the past open and dangerous. To close ties between culture and politics means that shifts in political powers generates new directors and policies. This makes cultural institutions lose their credibility and the long-term perspective needed for these. Instead NGOs and festivals fill the void with lots of activities supported also by Swedish efforts.

I think a more distanced and explicitly reflective relation to the war is only possible when a non-fighting generation is in need of formulating what happened, but trauma also needs to be dealt without enhancing and repeating hostility. If old state-run institutions that call themselves national museums do not do that, NGO’s once again have to take the role civic national movements once did in the 19th century. They need to invent and represent how they see the valuable part of their heritage in the face of their aspirations for the future. Maybe they already are gathering forces in communities – I have only missed them because of my focus are on the old institutions? It would be a pity if old investments were not to be re-used again. The capital invested is to large not to be used for creating also new visions and communities.

Piece by piece this is done. See the monument over the dreary meat tin that made Sarajevo survive, the Ironic and nostalgic Tito Caffe, the monument that says it covers a monument and the portal that says Kunst Macht Frei. All this happens in-between the National museum and the National Historical museums. And with a little help from my friends I learn how to read this dialogue in the public space created not in but around the old institutions.

Further reading from Peter Aronsson  & Gabriella Elgenius, (eds.). Building National Museums in Europe 1750–2010. Conference proceedings from EuNaMus, European National Museums: Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen, Bologna 28-30 April 2011. (Linköping: LiU E-Press, 2011).

National Museums in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia: A Story of Making ’Us’:;article=005

National Museums in Serbia: A story of Intertwined Identities:;article=033

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