Elma Hodžić, curator at the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, discusses the museum’s memory-making activities and Bosnian post-war identity.
Ordinary people, multiple Tito statues, and Valter also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show taking a journey through the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
One of the principal tools of preserving, presenting, and producing memory is the museum. As a cultural institution, the museum emerged in the 19th century to support the building of new or reviving nations across Europe by displaying and interpreting their history. The museum plays a major role in constructing and reconstructing collective identity and social cohesion around a common narrative, the story a nation tells itself about itself. As events transpire, as societies and regimes and governments change, the interpretations of history the museum displays change as well. The museum as the site of memory, lieu de mémoire, as the French historian Pierre Nora calls it, simultaneously reflects and shapes how past events and periods are remembered—and forgotten—in a society’s discourse. In other words, the museum as a site of memory is where history as it was constructed and reconstructed in the past meets history as it is constructed and reconstructed today.
Nowhere is the evolution of the museum as a site of memory, and indeed the evolution of memory itself, more visible than in the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and holding some 400,000 artifacts, the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina has survived three name changes, two regimes, and one long Siege. Its own history embodies how memory and remembrance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from socialist Yugoslavia to the present day, have evolved and, perhaps, where they’re going.
My guide to that narrative, and her own at the foreground, is my guest Elma Hodžić, a curator (or custodian) at the Museum. An art historian and writer by vocation, by her own description she is also a researcher, grant writer, project coordinator, technician, housekeeper, and doorsman at the Museum. “As a curator, you have to do everything,” she says. Elma was also one of Bosnia’s representatives in the “Inappropriate Monuments” project I discussed with one of Serbia’s representatives in a previous episode.
Elma’s personal background and connection to the socialist heritage shapes the focus of her work.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: And I started visiting some of the memory of places of the Second World War and I realized that these places, although they had been maybe irritating me with their discourse, they are very endangered.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Museum is very much a place where the past enters and occupies the present not just in what’s on display but also how it’s exhibited.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: It’s very interesting to see how one war actually pushed aside, or was pushed in[to] the basement, the Second World War.
PETER KORCHNAK: And as a young museologist, Elma has a lot to say not just about the past but also about the future.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: I really and firmly believe that our small steps can make big changes.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ordinary people, multiple Tito statues, and Valter also make an appearance.
Elma Hodžić: From Rejection to Preservation of Socialist Heritage
PETER KORCHNAK: Elma Hodžić, you were born just as Yugoslavia was falling apart and so you have no personal recollection of the country itself. How did your family background and education shape your life?
ELMA HODŽIĆ: I was born three years before the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina started. My father was a professional Yugoslav soldier who joined [the] Bosnian Army so when peace and Bosnia and Herzegovina came we were still the society with a lot of needs. There were so many things that we had to deal with and I did not have the time to think about my identity. I just had to, you know, learn very hard in order to become someone who can maintain [her] own life in the future.
Then I decided to study literature and art history, and when we had some topics connected with social realism in art, it was very weird for me. Because my family was not nostalgic about Yugoslavia, although my father was a Yugoslav soldier. Yugoslavia was something which we did not open a lot in my family. The war was still very fresh, I think, the wounds from the war were very difficult for my family, and I think that this part of the past was in a way blocked.
I was very irritated with books that I could read from the period of Yugoslavia, with news articles and with this very big glorifying discourse about Josip Broz Tito because for me it was a very a big fat lie, because I’ve suffered from the consequences of that bad love. So personally I was irritated and I read these books and texts I could notice that something was very fake in these narratives.
PETER KORCHNAK: I can relate to Elma’s story. One of the defining moments of my life took place during the Velvet Revolution when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s rule got swept away. It was then that I, a smart, well-behaved Young Pioneer with a bright future in the socialist system, realized that everything I believed, the building of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the whole red-starred shebang, was a lie.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: But then I started at some point reconnecting with this heritage. When I was finishing my university there was a tendency to re-talk about Yugoslavian heritage and I started visiting some of the memory of places of the Second World War and I realized that these places, although they had been maybe irritating me with their discourse, they are very endangered, and I think that this fragility of socialist heritage was my personal trigger to be involved in the stories that are kept in the museum.
I came to the Museum of the Revolution as a volunteer as someone who was doing [her] master’s thesis and I’ve discovered that this Museum was actually this is a typical Cinderella story of a wealthy girl that stays without any resources. So I wanted to be part of it, I felt a very natural need to help the museum, and that’s how my symbiosis with the museum started.
It’s about discovering this big potential of socialist heritage which was there and it was just standing in front of my eyes and sometimes fingers so I started reconnecting once again. And I realized that although this discourse could be very irritating for young people, I wanted to know why today’s youth do not believe in brotherhood and unity. What was the reason? What happened? Why do we not have the faith in common values? So that’s why I started doing my research and I felt a very natural need to also reconnect this museum with other museums in Bosnia and Herzegovina which had the same mission, same goals.
And I’ve also discovered that [the] 70s were the Golden Era of Bosnian museology. That’s when I felt also how many resources Yugoslav society had. And I started comparing two post-war systems, Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Second World War, Bosnia and Herzegovina after the last war, what were the differences, so there were so many open topics and open questions that are still there. I’ve literally did not manage to answer any of them but nevertheless I find this process of, you know, raising questions very important.
History of the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina
PETER KORCHNAK: The history of the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina unfolds in three acts. In the first, from 1945 when the Second World War ended to 1992 when the siege of Sarajevo began, it was called the Museum of the People’s Revolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, then the Museum of the Revolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Museum of the Revolution, as it was commonly known, was socialist Yugoslavia’s premier cultural-historical institution.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: It’s the phase when the museum was established as a place to keep memories of the Second World War and to use these memories in order to create [a] collective identity, [a] collective spirit, [a] collective narrative of the socialist state. The museum was actually designed to be a place which would have a dialogue with the society. Posters and propaganda were used as a medium to make collections. People have been invited to take a role in establishing the museum.
It’s a phase of Bosnian history where the society felt or the state also felt the need to make the memory public and to actually commemorate not just the victims of the Second World War but also to remember the important personalities, historical characters and also to mark important battles and important events of the Second World War.
The museum played a huge role. The museum was actually a coordinator of an official network which was established in [the] 70s, and curators of the Museum had an important role to help their colleagues to build museums and memorial places. The museum participated in creating the Memorial Park in Vraca, the museum in Foča, in Drvar, and it had so many cooperations with other, smaller memorial institutions.
It was important, the fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina was a state or a republic with the largest number of national heroes, where the major battles of Second World War occurred. So it was important in a way to recreate this collective memory and to use these past historical stories to create [a] better future.
So the museum was a generator not just in terms of creating these memories but also directing youth and locals to the better future. We usually say it’s a people’s museum, it’s a museum which belongs to everyone and it’s politics we actually use in other phases of history of the museum as well.
So the Golden Era of the Museum was marked with the process of creating collective identity within youth as well. So the museum was used as an educational hotspot, a place where all Pioneers, all youth of Bosnia and Herzegovina would gather in order to discover the values of socialist state. And I think that the museums are also about values and I think that we usually forget that.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Museum building is a wonderful example of the International Style in modernism. It consists of a basement with an enclosed, walled-in yard or garden, an elevated ground floor encased in glass, and a large marble cuboid comprising the upper storey, which gives the building its nickname, the Cube, and which seemingly hovers above the street. A droll story on the Museum’s website relates how one of the architects conceived the idea for the building: “When the idea was born, the only paper that he had beside him was toilet paper.”
ELMA HODŽIĆ: The museum building was declared a National Monument of Bosnia and Herzegovina and it was developed as some sort of a culture sculpture with exhibition space which is called the Cube. The Cube was all about socialism history of Yugoslavia history of the Second World War so there was a big narrative there, which supported the idea of socialist state.
Although the museum belonged to [a] very specific ideological system, I think it’s very interesting to nowadays to discover its messages and hidden meanings.
PETER KORCHNAK: The second act of the Museum’s history unraveled during the Siege of Sarajevo, from 1992 to 1995. The Museum’s building was damaged by the shelling; some of the damage is still visible. And the museum was renamed to the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its current name.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: Actually the museum was working during the siege but there were just several employees that actually stayed in the museum that were or working Museum that we’re working and that’s saved the museum to historic heritage kept in the museum collection it was a very turbulent difficult phase of buzzing in history with a lot of human loss and we are very lucky that the majority of the museum collections have been saved.
PETER KORCHNAK: The final act of the Museum’s history began after the Dayton Agreement was signed, concluding the war on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years ago this December. When peace broke out, the Museum underwent significant changes.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: It was no longer sustainable for the museum to stay the Museum of the Revolution. The museum had to find maybe new missions or new goals and it was supposed to be redesigned as the museum of contemporary or modern history. It was an act of saving the museum because the relationship between socialist heritage and the society became very weird, very problematic during the war, and maybe memorials and many museums were destroyed just because they were inappropriate heritage. They were in a way destroyed just because they have been part of the Tito system.
PETER KORCHNAK: The core permanent exhibit in the post-Dayton period was “Sarajevo Under Siege.” When I visited the Museum in 2013, the exhibit occupied the entire Cube, replacing, or succeeding, the socialist exhibit on World War Two history.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: It’s very interesting to see how one war actually pushed aside, or was pushed in[to] the basement, the Second World War. The permanent exhibition which is now called the “Siege of Sarajevo” is a story of civilians, of people that survived the siege. Each object that one can see in the exhibition are donations of people that wanted to be part of the museum discourse, that wanted to save, preserve their memories. So it’s an ongoing process and I think it’s 15 years of collecting objects and stories from the Siege.
But now we are in the process of redesigning the whole exhibition. We have invited friends of the Museum, international museologists, museum professionals, heritage professionals, and international historians to help us in rethinking the stories about the siege. Each curator in this Museum is in a way affected by the war, and I think it’s still very difficult to find the right perspective, especially since we want to use this exhibition as a platform for dialogue. We do not want to have a closed story, this is a living museum, a living exhibition, and we would like to actually use the exhibition to talk about the war but to make peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it’s a difficult process. I think we have to have [an] international team in order to be objective and to tell the story in the best possible way and also still to leave the space for dialogue. We will do our best to reserve some stories that have the potential to build peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. And we also try to find global, universal values which will help our guests, international visitors also to reconnect with the story of [the] Siege.
PETER KORCHNAK: Elma says there are three phases of the Museum’s history. But on my most recent visit, in December 2019, I noted something new outside the truncated siege exhibit. I’d venture to say the Museum has entered a next phase, applying an approach that’s nowadays called bottom up, but that actually resembles how the museum operated during socialism.
For example, the Living Museum exhibit had, in the summer of 2019, artists, curators, and researchers produce art works and curatorial / critical interventions relating to items from the Museum’s art collection and to use the museum space as an open art studio.
And an upcoming exhibit will explore the role and stories of Bosnian women in creating monuments and memorials around the city.
At any rate, the Museum does its work without any support from the government. This affects not only the Museum’s finances but also its memory-making capacity.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: So Josip Broz Tito actually as the figure of the president played a huge role in marking the place as an important educational and memory place. Museum curators used to write letters to Tito and the cabinet of the president would answer to these letters. We have an impressive guest book where Josip Broz Tito actually wrote down several words about the importance of this institution in the socialist system, and I’m saying all of this because nowadays Museum Works in a different way.
Still there is no Ministry of culture of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the state level. Republika Srpska has its own Ministry of Culture, [the] Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina has its own Ministry of culture but it’s no but there is no common ministry there is no common narrative, there is no common idea of the potential or importance of cultural institutions in order to create collective identity. And I wonder also, what would be post-war Bosnian identity? Do we have an identity?
Museums are very serious institutions but also very lucid institutions, as well. It’s a paradox of of an institution which is trying to be a bridge between past—the past is not sustainable it’s not very it’s very fluid it’s somewhere in the air—and the present we have the sense that it’s very there and the future is still very in the air—so how to be a bridge between time how to be a time machine that’s what the museums are all about.
So I wonder, what is the identity of Bosnians or people that nowadays live in Bosnia? I do not see a common history, although it exists but I don’t see a will of people to express maybe— or not just people the state I think the people have the will to live together but I’m not sure that the politics have the will to reconnect us.
PETER KORCHNAK: The lack of funding for repairs and maintenance is palpable at the Museum. And yet, despite the shortage of political and economic support, the Museum felt fresher, more up to date, youthful even, and dare I say future-oriented, than before.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: We don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have the money actually, but we have a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility.
We don’t have a lot of capacities when it comes to building some attractive exhibitions in terms of design but we have a lot of local stories which are so important. And I usually say that this is not the museum which can explain stories about important queens and kings of Bosnia or historical personalities. This is the museum which explains history from the perspective of everyday life of small but very big people that live in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Museum was in a way forced to discover the perspective of everyday life since there were no politicians or official strategies that would lead the museum team. What else could we have? We have just ordinary people that have a lot of problems and we actually wanted to be a generator, we wanted to use the strategies of the Museum of the Revolution to use some of the values that the Museum promoted and we wanted to make a platform for critical thinking, for critical research of the past. We did not want to throw away part of our identity just because it’s no longer sexy to be Yugoslavia or Yugoslav. We just wanted to investigate that or to see what actually is there still something that we can reuse to reconnect the society and to, you know, just to critically observe the discourse of the Museum of the Revolution once again.
We want to overcome the perspective of the victim. We want to talk about surviving and the spirit of the city which survived for centuries. And I think that this perspective would also could also be very helpful for young people that are now thinking of leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina going to Europe finding a better job and life there and I think that this could maybe be some sort of a trigger for people to stay. It’s ambitious but still I firmly believe that the museum has this potential of changing the future by reminding us how we actually struggled in the past or how we survived in the past.
Tito Statue at the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the exhibits that remains at the Museum is a monumental statue of Tito, made by the Croatian sculptor Anton Augustinčić. The statue is down in the courtyard, looking over a number of World War Two-era weaponry.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: When the Siege started all of these exhibits from the Museum of the Revolution were removed to the basement. The statue of your Josip Broz Tito was part of the permanent display and it was displayed together with other works of art.
The sculpture or the monument of Tito made by Augustinčić is something that was very popular, that was very present in marking the space. And it’s removed originally from its original place from the second floor from the Cube, and now it’s in the garden. So the idea is now to have a museum of the Revolution within the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to have these very public, open traces of the Museum of the Revolution and the story about Josip Broz Tito is also one of them.
This monument of Josip Broz Tito was present everywhere in ex-Yugoslavia so for my parents and their generation it’s quite normal to have Tito everywhere. For my generation that does not have a lot of memories on the Yugoslav state, we are in between. So we are quite normal in our parents are quite familiar with Tito’s image everywhere but the generation of my brother which was born in 1993 during the war for them I think it’s still very weird to have this icon everywhere. But it’s not everywhere actually there are just several places where you can see the image of Tito in the public space.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Augustinčić statue of Tito exists in seven copies outside the Historical Museum. The original is in Tito’s birthplace, in Kumrovec, Croatia. The others are at his burial place, in Belgrade, Serbia, and then one apiece in Velenje and Kranj, Slovenia; Podgorica, Montenegro; Skopje, Macedonia; and, just down the street from the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the University of Sarajevo.
Sarajevo also boasts a major street named after Tito. Though a number of streets, squares, and parks named after Tito in ex-Yugoslav countries have been renamed in the past three decades, most notably in Zagreb, Sarajevo’s Titova ulica persists. As do the city’s other heroes.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: I think that Titova will always stay Titova and you can rename it [but] in the memory of people it will be still be a sentence in Serbian, “Kad sem šetao Titova jučer.”
PETER KORCHNAK: “When I walked on Tito Street yesterday.”
ELMA HODŽIĆ: Why Valter stayed as a spirit of Sarajevo. His statue is still in the city center, his stories are everywhere, young people remember him. I don’t know whether that was influenced by the movie but I think that everyone knows the sentence, “Das ist Walter,” and I think there are some personalities and stories that never go out of fashion.
PETER KORCHNAK: Valter was the code name of Vladimir Perić, a Yugoslav Partisan commander, later proclaimed a national hero, in German-occupied Sarajevo during World War Two. A wall plaque and a small memorial commemorate Perić in the city.
The 1972 film Valter Defends Sarajevo fictionalized Perić’s wartime activities. It remains one of the most popular Yugoslav movies of all time. Its best known line is delivered at the very end, in German, by a Nazi commander who had learned his fight against the resistance may just be futile: “You see that city? That is Valter.”
Elma Hodžić: “Bosnia is My Home”
PETER KORCHNAK: Spilling over from Bosnian ethno-politics, with structural problems in large part created by the Dayton Agreement, a general sense of dismay and powerlessness at the lack of prospects in a dire, corrupt economy are just some of the reasons for the country’s high emigration rates. Pre-Covid official unemployment stood at over 18 percent; between 2014 and 2019, some 175,000 people left Bosnia for better prospects abroad, and 7 in 10 Bosnians are dissatisfied with where their country is headed. It’s worse for Bosnians aged 20 to 34: unemployment stands at nearly 50 percent and, between 1996 and 2018, Bosnia lost more than 150,000 people in that “young” age bracket. So I have to ask Elma, a Bosnian at the turn of her thirties, about her reasons for staying.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: We are now the society, we are the generation of people that do not have any questions. And one of my professors at [the] University, he’s one of the most influential Bosnian living writers—his name is Djevad Karahasan—do you have some questions, please do not agree with me. But we are a generation that is raised to have agreement with the system, we don’t have to think we don’t we just have to vegetate, we have to be there to serve, maybe I don’t know, I don’t know what is our mission, but definitely we have to ask ourselves and we have ask others, and I think the museum is a place to raise questions.
I really feel that Bosnia-Herzegovina is my home. I really and firmly believe that our small steps can make big changes. I was very lucky to be one of the few art historians of my generation to find a job, and I think that this job is just a job which you develop from 8 o’clock until 4, it’s a mission, and I think I found my place here.
I’m not sure I know that I will stay because I will probably need some other challenges in my life. I will have to find a PhD opportunity. I will have to move maybe to other parts of the world in order to become better Bosnian or to become a better citizen of the world. I’m not still sure there but I think that by traveling we learn a lot we have to possibility to exchange experiences, and each time that I stay in Bosnia for let’s say two months I become very depressive I have to leave Bosnia in order to, you know, make some emotional disconnection and to find some new ideas, some new triggers somewhere in Slovenia and in England, everywhere and to come back to my country, to my home.
I think that all of us we can contribute to a lot we have a beautiful nature we have a lot of history and we have good people, and I think that we can do a lot with ideas and with a bit of patience. I know that it can be very difficult to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina but I really recommend, maybe, to my generation just to find some sort of a balance between living abroad and living in Bosnia.
PETER KORCHNAK: My final question to Elma is: how can people support the Museum, aside from visiting of course? I shouldn’t have been surprised that, despite the financial and other tangible issues the Museum faces, the first thing she said was: “Tell us what you would like to see in the Museum.”
You can also donate objects and stories and of course money. A few years ago, the Museum initiated a donation drive for funds to restore the art collection; a group of kids with disabilities made and sold their own small works of arts and donated the proceeds to restore some museum paintings.
“You can always spread the good word,” Elma concluded. It is my hope for this conversation to be one such contribution.
After I leave the Cube, I roam around the Museum’s yard. Next to the Tito statue lies a hollow chunk of bronze with a wooden support jutting out of it. It’s what’s left of the right arm of a statue dedicated to the memory of female combatants in the liberation of Sarajevo, which had stood at the Vraca Memorial Park before it got toppled and mutilated by metal-seeking vandals in 2013. The Museum today preserves a piece of the memorial park that the Museum of yesterday built. And as sad as it is to see a statue, a memory, destroyed, that a piece of it remains preserved here until it’s useful, or remembered, again, fills me with hope.
I step out of the time machine to the present moment. Up and down the Dragon of Bosnia Avenue, cars and busses and trams and people stream, from here to there, from a moment past to a future unknown.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find resources, subscription links and ways to support the podcast at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast. And if you’d like to bridge the present and the future of Remembering Yugoslavia, please leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast listening app or chip in on Patreon.
I am Peter Korchňak.