BiH Government Re-opens National Museum Under Pressure from Citizen Demands

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BiH Government re-opens National Museum in response to civic action “I Am the Museum.”

Sept. 2015 – And they said it couldn’t be done: The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a custodian of culture for a region torn by ethnic divisions, re-opened its doors to the public on Sept. 15, after a three-year closure due to lack of funding and political disagreements. 

The opening was the direct result of joint efforts involving diplomatic pressure by the U.S. Embassy and USAID, including a month-long civic campaign, conducted in August by the USAID-supported civil society network CULTURE 2020. Each day of the “I Am the Museum” civic action, the network organized citizens to be on duty at museum premises, to demand that the government re-open this important institution and guard its heritage with museum workers, who had not been paid for three years. The action drew about 3,000 over the course of six weeks (Aug. 1 - Sep. 15), and involved many local celebrities, all of which garnered considerable media coverage and attention.

Under public pressure, BiH’s divided authorities finally agreed on a way to finance this landmark Sarajevo institution. Authorities from different layers of BiH’s complex government signed a deal pledging financing for the museum and six other national cultural institutions. The funds pledged will cover the museum's financing needs for one year.

"The biggest success was that we handed the museum over to the citizens from politicians," said Aida Kalender, who helped start the civic initiative. Popular Balkans blogger Jasmin Mujanovic said the initiative was “possibly the most successful civil society initiative in postwar BiH.“

Celebrities far and wide celebrated the re-opening with a message to BiH citizens. "You have opened your museum! You did that, you've made that happen!” said Eve Ensler, American playwright, performer, feminist and activist. “That's a big deal. And now, that's going to inspire someone else to do something else. So, congratulations!” she said.

The museum complex is the largest such institution in the region.  It holds its 4 million artifacts in departments of archaeology, ethnology and natural sciences and a rich library that includes the Sarajevo Haggadah, the 14th century Jewish book of Passover rites. It had outlived the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two world wars and the break-up of Yugoslavia, but has barely survived Bosnia's post-war system based on ethnic quotas.

The experience taught citizens that they hold more power than they thought, despite the complexities and obstacles to progress in their country. Indeed, the “I Am the Museum” campaign is the epitome of what USAID’s Civil Society Strengthening Project is all about: “You don’t have to be a politician to be a leader. Ordinary people can be agents of change. I have seen how ‘people power’ can and does make a difference in BiH,” said one diplomat about the re-opening.

Last updated: February 20, 2020

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