On the State of Cultural Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina Today

By Amila Ramović

What challenges do cultural institutions currently face in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Amila Ramović reveals connections and draws a depressing picture of the cultural landscape in the Balkan state. The musicologist from Sarajevo has produced numerous art projects and is currently involved in the ifa exhibition project EVROVIZION.CROSSING STORIES AND SPACES.

View of the city, Sarajevo, 2014. © Sabina Llemm

The state of culture and cultural institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina today requires us to look at the current situation in the country in general and to understand that the position of its cultural production is a reflection of present political dynamics.

On the one hand, the culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina throughout its history has been characterized by plurality and openness. Since the Ottoman era, the country has been a home to Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish communities. Traditionally they have not been kept apart, but have lived together, participating in each other's lives, and each reflecting itself in the others. Enjoying and caring for diversity has been a crucial aspect of Bosnian identity for centuries. This is why this small country was able to benefit from a very rich and diverse cultural life, well recorded in institutional and personal histories, and as such admired by the world.

A boat rowed by two rowers

However, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and especially during the 1992–1995 war, Bosnia and Herzegovina's struggle to preserve its particular heritage began, torn between Serbian and Croatian politics, which had committed unimaginable war crimes to implement their agendas, split the country along ethnic lines and make territorial gains. In an attempt to divide the country and erase the memory of togetherness they committed acts of aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide, all recognised and presented to the public by the Hague Tribunal.

Today the lives of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are entirely shaped by the past that has extended into the present. Being locked in by the Dayton Agreement, based on a concept that the victim and perpetrator should find a compromise, Bosnia and Herzegovina found itself undergoing an unbearable ordeal. Artificially divided, roughly according to the lines drawn through ethnic cleansing, the country's progress has for years resembled a boat rowed by two rowers in opposite directions, where every movement while standing still means digging deeper into the wounds of victims, perpetually reviving their trauma.

On a practical level, such destructive political reality underlines the impossibility for society to function institutionally in an equitable way. Such a state of affairs means that those who carried out the politics of war now have the institutional means to continue the division in the time of peace, with a power of veto over any initiative that has the potential to move society forward.

This situation has profoundly affected cultural life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For more than two decades, cultural institutions at the state level have been strategically destroyed by a lack of legislative support and through the systemic impoverishment of all the institutions and initiatives that carry the weight of national culture in its widest meaning, from deposits of knowledge like museums, archives, and libraries to the production and creation of new heritage. The agenda behind this venture is clear. The political myth that the society's divisions are organic and impossible to overcome is dismantled by the evidence of Bosnian cultural history, which is contained in and guarded by those very cultural institutions. This is why 'memory' institutions, those in charge of preserving and producing records of a cosmopolitan society and confirming the continuity of the state as such have suffered the most brutal attacks.

Becoming a cultural desert

It is a widely known fact that seven main cultural institutions 'of national importance' – the National Museum, the National Library, the National Gallery, the Museum of Literacy and Theatre Art, the Historical Museum, the Film Archive, and the Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired – were not made eligible for funding in post-war Bosnia, so much so that a minister of civil affairs once cynically stated that he did not believe they deserved particular support precisely because 'all institutions are of national importance.' At the same time, the crisis of funding has not affected those institutions with ethnic or religious backgrounds whose task is to produce newly established political identities, which has resulted in a growth of culture with ethnic and religious labels. In these circumstances, the main, and yet minimal, support for cultural production, comes at the level of local government, but local levels have local interests, and the relevance and quality of this production does not reflect a concern for the broader and long-term situation. This is why the most significant part of Bosnia and Herzegovina's cultural production today comes from fragmented voices in the independent sector and depends on the producers' ability to locate funding opportunities elsewhere.

The lack of attention to culture as a core value for society in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a new normal. The absence of strong and sustained protest against this situation in the public realm can perhaps be explained by the fact that these developments have coincided with the state of 'transition,' where political schemes met with the country's road to capitalism, blurring the idea of public good, so that the idea of culture as a public good has become even more abstract. Furthermore, the capitalist utopia has generated a vision of 'culture industry' as the most valuable form of culture; however, critics have warned us long ago that the culture industry is nevertheless an industry, where financial revenue is the only recognised form of profit, rather than the symbolic capital that constitutes the spirit of society.

In 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina is under threat of becoming a cultural desert. Big changes need to happen if this society is to preserve its memory and identity, transform experience into heritage, and communicate the historical messages that Bosnians believe should identify them to the generations to come.