The death of museum culture

While museum culture thrives in the West, representation of Kosovo’s rich cultural history is not on the agenda, and it is saddening to see how its museum culture is in decline.  

It is argued that, historically, museums were elitist places, enjoying a high representation of knowledge and status. Even the museum buildings themselves aspire to deliberate grandeur, a trend that is emulated globally to this day. Museums were perceived as well kept, silent and sacred spaces which preserved a unique experience. Goethe described his visit to the museum of Dresden in 1768 as “akin to the emotion experienced upon entering a House of God.”

I often plan a weekend trip to see an exhibition, or just revisit few favorite masterpieces that are housed permanently in the relative vicinity, London or Paris, a few hours by train for me. This past January, I made a bigger effort. I took a three hour flight to visit the National Museum of Kosovo.

I wasn’t sure what was awaiting me, I did not know much about the collection the museum held. In fact, it occurred to me that I had not visited that museum for most of my adult life, and I hold no early memories of a visit to my hometown museum. We can all agree that a child’s world is often shaped by what they see, learn and experience at museums.

Given that I belonged to the generation of war, schooling was the main battle, and museum culture was just another robbery. But 20 years after the war, how many of you make a planned visit to the museum at the weekend?

I have been concerned about the status of the National Museum in Kosovo for a while now, and my concerns are reinforced by the general lack of interest that surrounds it. I google the museum once in a while, and not much comes up. One never hears about the museum’s activities in Kosovo, it is not part of discussion amongst friends, it is not in the media, it is not part of school curricula and it is not part of general education. It is not a part of our mindset.

Museum culture in Kosovo is dead, and this type of death is a painful one. It leaves generations of youngsters short of knowledge about their own culture. It deprives the youth of the importance of curating an object, a ‘thing’, a story, a skill that stretches beyond the museum, and teaches us how to take care of our surroundings and view them with critical appreciation.

Kosovo is practically bursting with artistic talent, many of them enjoying international acknowledgement. However, most of the contemporary artists of Kosovo have had little to no interaction with their national museum.

A senior artist in Prishtina told me that I was actually the first person in about 10 years to have posed the question: When did you last visit the National Museum of Kosovo? I want to believe that they appreciate the museum as an institution, that they understand the educational and cultural value it holds, but it appears that the cultural interaction with the national museum is not fruitful.

When I visited, the beautiful villa which hosts the museum stood in all its grandeur, covered in white snow, beautiful and proud. On the first floor, there is a rather nice collection of pottery and jewellery from the 9th and 11th century. The information on the items was also acceptable, the time and location where these objects came from was indicated in three languages, Albanian, Serbian and English. There was potential for a lovely first floor. The space, the lighting, the collection was all there, a team of professionals could do wonders with that combination at hand.

There were many standing pieces of marble on the other half of the first floor, with no explanation as to where they were found or what they were part of in their previous life. This information is what makes the museum meaningful, it is necessary, but it was missing. I thought that this could be fixed easily, again with the collection at hand, all you need is the necessary professionals to dig through the archives and make sure that one plus one make two.

The second floor was dedicated to the nation’s most recent history. I moved around the beautiful space. Again, it is a space with incredible potential and I instantly thought of English literary critic William Hazlitt. After visiting the collection at the National Gallery in London, he recalled the experience as a visit to a “sanctuary”, this “holy of holies” he wrote, “is like going on a pilgrimage – it is an act of devotion performed at the shrine of Art!” I could recognize the sensation he had described, but it was not happening for me in the same way at the National Museum of Kosovo.

I was facing ‘the collection’ which was meant to portray the contemporary history of the newborn nation. It was a number of folded uniforms of the fallen freedom fighters, machine guns, and other possessions of the deceased. I myself lived through this period of oppression and worked on the front line where the war was fought by those whose uniforms were in the exhibition. In other words, I am aware of what happened, but I am also aware that there is much more to Kosovo’s contemporary history. It is not exclusively male camouflage clothing and guns. This was a collection of possessions, mainly placed there to fill the space, and placed entirely out of context.

Kosovo has a long history of peaceful resistance against an oppressive regime, which occurred for many years during the 1980’s. This period and experience is widely and internationally acknowledged. Many women led the peace movements in the 1990’s, supporting women from rural parts of Kosovo who faced a massive gap in education, health care and general state support which was non existent in those days. What about the several generations of youngsters who were not allowed access to higher education? These events are recorded and reflected in different forms such photography, videos, paintings etc.

This unique experience and history of Kosovo could be shown in imaginative, gripping ways. But this dimension, this common experience of powerlessness turning into empowerment, or hope, it is entirely missing from this rather simplistic attempt to portray Kosovo’s history by looking down the barrel of a gun.

In many post-conflict countries, museums are created as symbols of newly formed nation-states, and the museum often becomes a place of commemoration and remembrance of a violent past, but those types of museums are not the National Museums, especially not in a country like Kosovo which prides itself constitutionally on being a multiethnic state.

In addition to the experience of war, there is much more to Kosovo. The National Museum of Kosovo has an ethnographic collection which could portray the impressive embroidery skills, the cultural and traditional elements of a lifestyle which is part of the nation’s heritage. Where is the reference to these unique cultural practices, songs and architecture?

Of course during the conflict period the National Museum of Kosovo was robbed of many archeological and movable heritage objects. I was looking for a sign within the museum walls that would inform me of the fate of those objects. There was none. I would have expected the museum to dedicate a special place for these objects, in that way they are not forgotten, they are expected to return and the random visitor is educated that Kosovo’s contemporary history suffered also that type of assault.

The practice of gathering, preserving, and displaying collections is fundamental to the idea of a museum, it is not a random act. The very origin of museums is first and foremost a study collection, a repository of knowledge, and also to offer a space within which the soul of the nation can repose and grow. The museum culture of this nation needs an immediate revival. The second floor of the national museum needs to revive its curiosity and allow the subtle and reflective identity that the national museum deserves reconnect with the people.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Nora Weller is a legal adviser on foreign policy and cultural heritage protection. She operates from the University of Cambridge, UK. The opinions expressed are private.

read more: