Serbia’s fractured history is reflected in Belgrade’s museums
No single museum gives an overall narrative of Serbia’s development. Instead the country’s history is split between several different institutions.
History is communicated to the public through several different means. This includes history textbooks, television series and museums, which are the subject of this article. We often like to think of museums as neutral, trustworthy arbiters of historical fact. This is in fact far from the truth. Museums are inherently and inescapably political. Every choice a museum or a curator makes has political implications, from what artefacts are put on display, to the order they appear, to how they are categorised.
History museums in Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade illustrate this well. No single museum gives an overall narrative of Serbia’s development, not even the National Museum. Instead the country’s history is split between several different institutions. The reasons for this are linked to Serbia’s 20th century political upheavals and the subsequent attempts made to control the ‘national story’.
The National Museum of Serbia, reopened in 2018, displays artefacts that range from the beginning of human civilisation to the Ottoman conquest of Serbian lands. It also functions as an art gallery that displays European and Serbian/Yugoslav painters from the 14th to 20th centuries. Historical items that relate to Serbia’s fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire are held in the Historical Museum of Serbia, which does not have a permanent exhibition.
The only exhibition dedicated to the history of Tito’s Yugoslavia is located in the Museum of Yugoslavia. The museum has a permanent exhibition that covers life during the era, which is located in the ‘old’ museum building. However, no Serbian Minister of Culture has ever officially visited this museum, probably fearing that it would appear to be an endorsement of the communist regime. This gives us a clue as to why Serbia’s history is scattered across several museums.
Each of these aforementioned museums was founded in order to serve the purposes of the ruling regime at the time. The National Museum of Serbia was founded in 1844, when Serbia was still an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire that aspired to full independence. ‘National’ museums were founded across Europe in the 19th century in order to tell a particular national story that justified the emergence of a new nation state. Other examples include the Hungarian National Museum founded in 1802, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg established in 1852 and the National Historical Museum in Athens founded in 1882. These 19th century national museums have often been characterised critically in modern museology as ‘temples’ or ‘shrines’ to the nation, which give an idealised view of the past in which the nation state is portrayed as the natural and inevitable culmination of history. Serbia’s National Museum was no exception. As the museum’s current website states it has developed a role as “an institution of protection but also as a scientific and research institution that constituted the national identity”.
This purpose had to be altered somewhat from 1918 to 1941 when Serbia was a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The museum held more exhibitions representing other parts of the country in order to reflect the new multinational state. Nevertheless, a key part of the main exhibition was dedicated to the Serbian royal families and objects from the First and Second Serbian Uprisings, which had led to the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.
In 1954 artefacts from the two uprisings were removed from the National Museum’s collections. The new communist authorities of Yugoslavia believed that these objects, which might remind Serbs of their national distinctiveness in relation to the state’s other ethnicities, could in fact be co-opted to support the regime through a Marxist interpretation of history. To ensure that the uprisings were seen through the lens of class struggle, rather than through Serbian nationalism, they constructed a new museum dedicated to the First and Second Serbian Uprisings. This museum would go on to become the Historical Museum of Serbia, which still holds the pieces today. This explains the strange anomaly that Serbia’s National Museum does not contain any artefacts from the founding of the modern Serbian state. Its main exhibition discusses the Ottoman conquest of Serbia and then the museum becomes an art gallery.
The Museum of Yugoslavia, which was established in 1962, was intended to become a new museum to showcase the struggle of the working classes across all of Yugoslavia. Tito did not live to see its completion. As the state that the museum was intended to honour disintegrated through violent conflict during 1990s, Tito’s grave, which is located in the museum’s grounds, became a place of pilgrimage for those nostalgic for the peace and relative prosperity of Yugoslavia.
Despite this, the museum has persevered. It now holds an eclectic range of temporary exhibitions as it continues to search for a new purpose within post-Yugoslav, post-Communist society. It has hosted thought-provoking exhibitions on issues like the Non-Aligned Movement and Yugoslav Second World War monuments. It recently opened a permanent exhibition about Yugoslavia, thereby filling a historical gap that no other history museum in Belgrade has engaged with on a permanent basis.
What should be clear is that these institutions, like all museums, are inherently political. They are founded for political purposes to communicate specific narratives and are not neutral or objective. This, however, does not render them dishonest or deceitful. Complete objectivity is of course impossible. Every institution is affected and partly defined by the time in which it was created. All governments have a natural inclination to promote historical narratives that benefit them by emphasising some events and downplaying others. The founding of numerous history museums in Belgrade, Serbia is just one example of this common tendency.
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.
Luke Bacigalupo is a junior 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 organisations including the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and UNDP in Serbia.
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