The version of following paper is as it should have been read at the SAA meetings, prepared for a 15-minute presentation. 



Alvaro Higueras

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Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and Politics in the National Museums of the ex-Yugoslavia

Original abstract: The conversion of the ex-republics of Yugoslavia into new nations has launched the creation of basic state institutions in each country. National museums are one institution recreated in this process. I will compare the archaeological presentations prepared or programmed for the National museums of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia to the historical, ethnic, and cultural reality of the new nation. And I will contrast the role of the archaeology section in these museums to other parts of the exhibit. I will conclude by discussing how “messages” provided in museums contrast to current situations where, after years of war and peace, these countries are still changing. 

In this paper I explore recent trajectories and perspectives of cultural heritage conservation and National Museum in three territories that were part of Yugoslavia before 1992: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, today independent countries; and Kosovo, a territory still in the Yugoslav federation but under control of NATO, the UN, and a local government. I will emphasize the situation in Kosovo, as it is the source of the primary data of this paper, and will compare it to the scenarios of the first two countries. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have had severe destruction and have urgency to reorganize museum and institutes for monuments. These institutions need to rebuild presentations of the past in the museums halls and rebuild historic towns by restoring World-class heritage monuments burned and bombed during the war. The situation in Macedonia is quite less dramatic.

The theme of this paper is broader than proposed in the original abstract. I will add an overview of cultural heritage management to the representation of archaeology in museums. I do so because I believe that in the context of these new countries, the representation of the past is also constructed with today’s new attitudes towards cultural heritage. These are multi-ethnic countries whose cultural heritage was culturally diverse as well. Indeed Bosnia was always equaled with a micro-cosmos of Yugoslavia with its Serb, Croat and Bosniac populations. 

Studying the management of cultural heritage in these new countries is a complex topic. It implies researching how in the past, before the war, managing monuments was an important tool of domination in the case of Kosovo and Macedonia. It implies assessing its state today, exploring the planned strategies for the reconstruction and restoration of cultural heritage in these new, but lesser, multi-ethnic societies. It requires finding if the situation of cultural heritage mimics the ethnic crimes committed during the war. It implies finding if today’s destroyed monuments are intentionally left to decay when they do not belong to the culture of the dominant ethnic group, reflecting the new landscape arrangements. In sum, in assessing how cultural heritage integrates into the new urban, ethnic and historical scenarios.

So focusing on how cultural heritage is managed is an extension of what happens in the museum rooms.

This analysis in the Balkans is only part of a larger project that studies the issues posed by archaeology dealing with how the remote and recent past is remembered, reconstructed and promoted, both in museum narratives and in physical historical landscapes. We are practicing what could be called archaeology of war, studying ravaged landscapes punctuated by crimes against humanity on monuments and populations (I will not discuss here the forensic component of this project.) (It is important to note that the destruction of monuments has been equaled to and is being prosecuted as crimes against humanity. ICTY has catalogued the destruction of monuments in Kosovo as part of their evidence against Milosevic.) 

The research for this paper was made with first hand experience while in charge of the government’s supervisory agency and overseeing cultural management and museum projects in Kosovo. Later I have explored the developments of these institutions in Macedonia and Bosnia, to compare the fate of cultural heritage and National Museums on a broader scale.

Brief History
Yugoslavia was until 1991 one of the largest and most diverse European countries. Ethnic diversity and co-existence in this region had been a constant throughout its history, in times of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. These territories have remained multi-ethnic even after the independence wars between them and within them, and after ethnic cleansing strategies that sought deportation and extermination of minorities. Nonetheless, they are radically different today: the view of the past has to deal with the new ethnic configurations. These ex-Yugoslav republics already had autonomy to address their own cultural identity policies, because the supranational Yugoslav project had been abandoned in the early 70’s. Only the army reflected a Yugoslav project. 

Kosovo: Kosovo obtained a de-facto and temporary independence from Yugoslavia in 1999 after a ten-year period of pacific resistance, a short-lived small-scale local armed conflict, and a drastic NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The United Nations and a local government are now administering Kosovo jointly. Kosovo had lost institutional autonomy in 1989. Since then Belgrade and Serbian administrations had dominated the cultural policies and strategies. Today Kosovo is rebuilding its cultural institutions, disregarding the final outcome of its political status –as it is highly likely that they will become, again, an autonomous part of the new Serbia and Montenegro Federation.

Bosnia: The 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina confronted three ethnic groups: Serbs, Bosniacs, and Croats. They fought over land for future territories, in a frenzied nationalistic revival (that brew since the Yugoslav project was abandoned). Serbia and Croatia supported their Bosnian populations, while, as shown by the long siege of Sarajevo, the Bosniacs had no foreign support.

It is only coincidence that these groups have different religions. (For example, there is little sympathy between Bosniacs and Kosovars, both Muslim groups: Bosniacs speak a version of Serbian while Kosovars speak Albanian.) 

The war ended in 1995 with the Dayton Peace accords: Serbs secured a separate polity within Bosnia, while Croats and Bosniacs joined in a fragile federation. Croat nationalists continue today to demand a separate Herzegovina polity. 

Macedonia: In Macedonia an internal conflict occurred well after the peaceful independence from the Yugoslavia in 1991.
(Its main problems came over a confrontation with Greece over its name.) 
Macedonia is also a multiethnic country with a majority Macedonian population and an important 33% Albanian population. Nevertheless, in the first eight years of independence the government improved little the rights of Albanians within Macedonia. The short civil war in 2001 was aimed at increasing civil rights and political position for this sizeable minority.

Today, the international community supervises the maintenance of this ethnic coexistence and co-habitation within Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia. NATO forces and international organizations, with different leverage in each country, are maintaining the population distribution scenario present after the war. That is, they are not reversing the forced population migrations generated by the war, but support, however, individuals and families to return to their place of origin. For example, today a majority Serbian population peoples the Serbian Republic of Bosnia. Ten years ago the Muslim populations made about 20% of its population. It is clear that this polity will forge a new perception and construction of the past that will most probably omit references to remnant minorities. Similarly, the composition and distribution of the population of the city of Mostar has changed to include a larger number of Croats and loose the Serbian population, and is today a divided city with clear-cut Croat and Moslem sectors.

Representation of the Archaeological Past in National Museums
Addressing issues of preservation of cultural heritage and presentations of the past in museums should be under the control of professionals in institutes for monuments and in museums. This is indeed the case in the closed environments of museums. 

Archaeology is indeed a high priority in preparing new presentations in each National Museum. National Museums in these three countries have taken or will take very similar approaches towards re-presenting the archaeological past in their rooms. Unless new approaches are suggested to museographers, form and content will replicate the standards common during the pre-1991 period: chronological display of artifacts, emphasizing displays that dwell on the earlier populations of the region. As such, archaeological themes often include time periods other than prehistory: archaeology of Medieval and Turkish-Islamic times. Archaeological data of all these periods has often been used in the political discourse to support ethnic preeminence or rights to settle lands. Again, such is the case for Kosovo where the medieval occupation was essential to define Serbian ancestry in the land.

Exhibits in these countries were already tailored to the specific past of each republic, after the Yugoslav project had been abandoned. This is true except for Kosovo, where Serbian influence on the exhibits was quite strong. 

Kosovo The National Museum in Pristina is currently exhibiting a small and temporary exhibit of its ethnographic collections, and a poor and crude exhibit on the 1999 war, with items ranging from shells to pierced t-shirts of slain soldiers. They remain in their original building but the European Community uses most of it. It is one of the most elegant buildings in the city, and will apparently serve as the Presidential palace. In that case the future of the museum is further endangered. 

The recreation of the archaeological exhibits was already in jeopardy. The Museum had lent in early 1999, before the war, and under its Serbian director, a collection of 700 artifacts for an exhibit in Belgrade. Those artifacts have not been returned after the war. The Department of Culture and the Museum of Kosovo are making effort to have the collection returned. They have posted a virtual collection on the web ( to promote their plight and show their most important artifacts. Moreover, they are planning to put the complete collection on the Internet, as it is apparent that the opening of their exhibits will not occur in the near future. 

The question of the type and character of the presentation for the archaeological collections remains. Promoting a prehistoric exhibit is a sensible idea given that before the war research on prehistory was not as important as research of medieval history. This was understandable, and more evident in monument preservation, because Kosovo is an important territory for Serbian identity. However, based on the blueprints for the new exhibit, it seems that it will follow a traditional layout for the collections: chronological display with little use of recent data (understandable as it does not exist), and little text and descriptions. But this exhibit will have a strong message: in their plans of preparing the new exhibits, staff and intellectuals in Kosovo insist on underlining the Illyrian settlement of the region, as ancestors of the Albanian populations. This is clearly a problematic topic, as populations like the Croats of the Dalmatian coast also signal the Illyrians as ancestors. 

Bosnia The Museum of Sarajevo founded more than a century ago during the Austrian period, today National Museum, was a leading institution in Yugoslavia. The building still shows the destruction of the war. The tenacity of its staff saved much of the collections in the 3-year war. The museum has reopened with roman and medieval exhibits. The medieval period in Bosnia is a tricky one in Bosnia. It is when Bosnia was an independent kingdom with an overwhelmingly orthodox population, before they were occupied by the Ottoman Empire and converted to Islam. This is a traditional option that is restricting the representation of a past, which now includes a civil war, and the constitution of a new independent country.

In a previous paper I argued that the National Museum should perhaps consider giving priority to exhibits that recount that recent past, that past that is responsible for the ethnic and cultural landscape we see today. Is it too soon to present the events of the last decades? Is it worthwhile to present those events to tackle the problems of ethnic tolerance and coexistence in the new Bosnia? Is it productive to present to the public the dangers of ethnic cleansing? In sum, should the National Museum help in creating a stronger, tolerant, and more cohesive community by displaying the above themes? 

All the political events of the last decade and the 20th century, in which Sarajevo and Bosnia are central key players (i.e., its relationship to World War I) are still to be presented in the museum. In the countries of the ex-Yugoslavia it was the Museum of the Revolution that concentrated in contemporary history and the creation of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Their purpose was clear: to consolidate an artificial amalgam of peoples. These museums have been closed and have merged with the national museums.

Macedonia The Museum in Skopje was not destroyed in the war, and has maintained the core of its pre-1991 times. It is an exhibit that emphasizes Roman times, and where the previous period of Alexander and the Pella dynasties are overshadowed. This latter polity makes reference to the Greek Macedonia, a source of contention between the two countries, which are both Orthodox.

Cultural heritage and landscape: the monumental preservation and representation of the past
Harm and destruction of World Heritage class monuments and other resources of high historical importance have radically changed the landscape of these three countries. The situation is more complex that with museums: the professionals are not the only ones mingling with monuments. There are several actors concerned with cultural heritage preservation, reconstruction, and promotion: local governments, mosque administrators, supervisory international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are active players in it.

So the observations I make will not be limited to decisions by official agencies, but also of the attitude of religious and civil society towards preserving that heritage. Many decisions pressured by the international community clash with the locals will. So in this case, it is not only a matter of how the local populations see their past and plan to manage their heritage, but coping with the political decisions of the international community that are often imposed for political purposes. The points of view of each group are often at odds in decisions regarding cultural heritage. The results for cultural heritage are often negative, as reconstruction of monuments stands as a priority with no regard to the historic value of the building. In the process of restoration a lack of control and supervision is creating much harm to cultural heritage.

During the war, destruction has affected many civil and religious monuments: to name a few, the Stone Bridge in Mostar in Bosnia and the old town and Mosque of Djakova in Kosovo, and the libraries of Mostar and Sarajevo, where thousands of Islamic manuscripts were lost. In the post-war period, urban expansion, religious influence, foreign impositions, and lack of know-how by local professionals are affecting the preservation of monumental heritage. These factors do not occur in equal importance in each of these countries. As I see the situation, they have been all critical in Kosovo 

Kosovo The situation of the historical monuments of Kosovo is very poor after the war. Both Islamic and Orthodox monuments were target of opposing forces. Small churches in the country were destroyed in dispersed attacks, while the great and rich Orthodox monasteries remain in good state. Islamic monuments and traditional Kosovar architecture was target of systematic destruction. The old town of Djakova including market, mosque and medresa (Islamic school) were burned, and complete villages with traditional stone walled tower-houses called “kullas” were destroyed. The Serbian military had the intention of wiping out all traces cultural heritage in Western Kosovo.

Before the war, when the Serbian authorities controlled the institutes, about 80% of the restoration funds were channeled to the important Orthodox monasteries (Kosovo is the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church) and medieval archaeology was the main target of field research. A particularly critical result of this is the poor know-how for restoration of monuments, and capacity in managerial roles by Kosovar professionals. In the last ten years not many Islamic monuments were restored and maintained. The ones destroyed by the war or in poor condition are the ones that need the work today and there is no capacity to undertake that job. 

Foreign NGO’s happen to be another source bothering with Kosovo monuments. Many NGO’s of Islamic origin have had a policy of razing traditional house-like mosques in Kosovo, many of them as old as the 18th century. In its place they built white, shiny and tall mosques. The religious agenda of these NGO’s is clear, as they want to convert the very liberal Islamic traditions of Kosovo into more strict Islamic trends.

Bosnia The ethnic distribution in this territory has drastically changed after the war. Long gone are the decades when Serbs, Moslems and Croats that inhabit Bosnia shared through peace and war their historical space, as so vividly described by the celebrated Bosnian writer Ivo Andric. The cultural landscape of Bosnia has been changed accordingly. The Serbian population had destroyed most of the mosques in their territory, including the 16th mosque in the capital Banja Luka. Several mosques have been restored in the countryside, but when it came to rebuild the Banja Luka mosque, a decision imposed by the international community, the riots by nationalists dented once more the rocky process of coexistence. The international community is favoring a fast-track reconciliation process, which does not consider the sentiments of the locals. It is difficult to understand that any reconciliation can occur in so little time, seven years, and under external pressure. The natural process of reconciliation is somehow accelerated in Bosnia, with the only result of exacerbating hatred between ethnic groups. 

Mostar provides another example of the reconstruction of the cultural landscape. It is now a divided city, which has swapped its former Serbian population to a strong Croat population. 

Macedonia Cultural heritage in Macedonia did not suffer at all as there was no long and lasting war. A few mosques and churches have been destroyed in the recent war but since the ethnic balance or distribution has not changed, these monuments will be eventually reconstructed to mimic the pre-conflict situation, maintaining the original cultural landscape.

Observations of the changes in the cultural landscape in these new countries are showing us that the new populations in this new ethnic mosaic are having a determining role in how landscapes are reconstructed. The strategies implemented for the reconstruction of museum exhibits and cultural heritage monuments often defeats the perspectives that an outside observer could have on the issues. 

The new autonomy and freedom obtained by populations in Kosovo, for example, is geared towards a fast and general reconstruction of the country without much concern for cultural heritage. The populations and the religious establishment is often inclined to accept any kind of reconstruction offers which will have greatly negative impact on the preservation of Kosovo’s heritage. The capital of Kosovo, Pristina, for example, has doubled its population size to more that 800,000 in the last two years. The consequences of this for the remaining older parts of Pristina are severe. For one thing, when the country is again settled in peace much of the cultural heritage would have disappeared. Most of the damage all over Kosovo is being done by grants from Islamic agencies towards building new mosques. I have no doubt that this willingness to expand into this moderate Islamic country a more conservative Islamic stance is destroying much more that what the Serbian army achieved.