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Serbia’s National Museum: Shrine to the Nation or Something More?

The Coronavirus outbreak has forced many cultural institutions to experiment with new, innovative, online solutions to continue to reach people.  Many museums, including the Louvre, the Vatican museum and the Dali museum have provided virtual tours so that people can enjoy the collections from the comfort of their own home.  This could bring a revolution to museums, in which physical presence is not necessary to enjoy access to cultural treasures.

The National Museum of Serbia in Belgrade has placed their exhibition of Ivan Mestrović’s Vidovdan cycle online. However, Mestrović’s sculptures raise a number of questions about the role of national museums in 21st century that go much deeper than virtual exhibitions and the current coronavirus crisis.

Mestrović’s sculptures were intended to be part of a Vidovdan Temple to be built at Kosovo Polje.  The temple was supposed to cement the Vidovdan myth as the central myth of the first Yugoslav state.  His attempt to strengthen the newly-created Yugoslav identity through artwork now seems a hopelessly optimistic and anachronistic endeavor.  The Vidovdan cycle now sits in the National Museum as a testament to a different time, an example of the Yugoslav sentiment of the early 20th century that now feels a world away.

Vidovdan’s continuing importance to Serbia is demonstrated by the fact that the National Museum was reopened on Vidovdan in 2018.  This caused anthropologist Ivan Čolović to comment that the opening was intended to portray the museum as a new Vidovdan temple.  So, if we take Čolović at his word, we have a sort of Russian doll of national shrines – Mestrović’s unfinished Yugoslav temple inside modern Serbia’s newly opened Vidovdan museum.  One temple inside another.

But is it fair to call the National Museum a shrine?  What make a museum ‘national’?  We often like to think of museums as neutral, objective institutions, but the reality is very different.  Most ‘national’ museums in Europe were founded in 19th century, to tell a particular national story that helped to justify the emergence of new, young nation states.  Examples include the Hungarian National Museum founded in 1802, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremburg established in 1852, and the National Historical Museum in Athens founded in 1882.  Serbia’s National Museum was no exception.  It was founded in 1844 and as the museum’s current website states it came to develop a role as “an institution of protection but also as a scientific and research institution that constituted the national identity”.  19th century national museums have often been characterized critically in modern museology as ‘temples’ or ‘shrines’ to the nation, that give an idealized view of history in which the new nation states serve as the natural culmination of history.

The National Museum of Serbia has rather uniquely had to serve as a ‘shrine’ for several different regimes.  When Serbia became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, the museum adapted accordingly.  It included more exhibits from other regions of the country, though Serbia remained the most represented area.  Mestrović’s work featured heavily in the museum, as he was one of the greatest cultural champions of the Yugoslav idea.  Furthermore, the museum gained royal patronage and merged with the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1935 to become the Prince Paul Museum.  An avid art collector, Prince Paul endowed the museum with much of its large art collection.

The Communist regime left an interesting legacy that affects the Serbian national narrative that is presented in the museum to this day.  The authorities removed relics from the First and Second Serbian rebellions from the National Museum’s collections.  They did this in order to establish a separate Museum of the First and Second Serbian Uprisings.  This museum would later become the Historical Museum of Serbia.  The Communist authorities did this in order to ensure that these rebellions were firmly placed into a Marxist interpretation of history, rather than a Serbian nationalist one.  Even today the permanent exhibition of the National Museum contains no historical artifacts from the First and Second Serbian uprisings.  The only artefacts from after the Ottoman conquest of Serbia are artworks.

What should the role of a National Museum be in 21st Century?  Since 1970s the idea of museums presenting a single, unquestioned historical narrative has been heavily criticized.  History is not a single story, but a multitude of interpretations that are endlessly debated.  Museums should reflect this, instead of supporting the current governing regime by reproducing its preferred view of the nation.

It is clear that the National Museum of Serbia has been influenced by some modern trends in museology.  It aspires to be much more than a national shrine.  In line with modern museology, the texts in the museum encourage critical thinking.  For example, a section on the late Neolithic Vinča culture asks “Were there tensions between Vinča communities?  Did the inhabitants of one settlement threaten their neighbour’s stability?  How did everyday tasks influence the position of individuals and groups?  Did a gender division of labour exist?” This text shows a commitment to modern understandings of museology; it invites the visitor not just to look passively at the exhibit, but to engage with it, to use it a starting point to think about deeper questions.

However, the National Museum in Belgrade has not undertaken the radical transformation attempted by some other national museums in Europe.  Old guidebooks show that the fundamental categorization of the artifacts has remained virtually the same since 1956.  In contrast, an attempt to revitalize the National Museum of Poland in Warsaw saw its items completely rearranged into thematic exhibits.  Its artworks, for instance, were rearranged in order to show the influence of homoeroticism on classical art.  The exhibit caused a great deal of controversy, but its curators felt that this attention was better than the apathy and falling visitor numbers that it had previously experienced.

It is clear that museums can no longer simply be shrines to the nation.  They must endeavor to provide something more than a single historical narrative, or a display of artifacts intended only for experts.  They must raise questions and stimulate the general public to think, and change with the times.  Online exhibitions are certainly a good start to making national museums more accessible and bringing them into the modern world.  But they are just a start. The National Museum of Serbia must ensure that it plays a different role to Mestrovic’s unfinished Vidovdan temple and become much more than a shrine to the Serbian nation if it is to avoid the same fate of becoming an anachronism.

The article is part of the wider research supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society in the context of the project ‘Building Knowledge about Kosovo (v.3.0)’ whose findings will be published soon.

About the author – Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a risk analyst for Brasidas Group.  He has published a number of articles on political issues in South Eastern Europe for Global Risk Insights.  He received a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Oxford before going on to study an MA in South-Eastern European Studies at the University of Belgrade.  Following his studies he worked for a number international organizations including the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and UNDP in Serbia.  Pursuing his interest in Balkan history, in 2019-2020 he wrote an academic article comparing the museological approaches of the main history museums of Kosovo and Serbia.

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