Alternative Museums in the Former Yugoslavia: Everyday Narratives of the Past, Present, and Future

This post was co-authored with Jovana Babovic

Museums are aimed at educating the general public about history; they are the everyday historian in society. But they also create narratives—national ones, colonial ones, cultural ones—that are too often the province of linear histories and retroactive significance. Scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Tony Bennett have long argued that museums are sites where state and institutional power manifests and is created dialectically with its audience. So while most museums can be criticized, we should also take care to notice alternative approaches to telling public history. Living and traveling through former Yugoslavia has revealed a particularly vibrant presence of museums with alternative narratives. It’s not accidental. Twenty years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, competing narratives of the past and present run rampant as successor states struggle to define their identities in a world where their collective past no longer makes sense. More importantly, the aftermath of the 1990s wars has left a veritable historical vacuum, and most of the former Yugoslav states now face the challenge of coming to terms with the wars, as well as their social, economic, and cultural aftermath. Although more traditional museums remain conspicuously silent on the post-war decades, alternative museums have made great strides in prioritizing the topics that have remained marginalized. Belgrade’s Museum of Violence (MoV), Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships (MBR), and street art in the two cities embody the necessity, possibilities, and limitations of non-normative museums. Rather than creating narratives, they provide a platform for the public to contribute their voice as donors and curators; they point toward reconciliation with recent history and allow individuals to become agents of their own past and present.

In Belgrade, alternative museums are a necessity. Visitors and residents have not had the opportunity to experience Serbia’s state-funded museums in the last two decades; the National Museum has been closed for renovations so long that locals can hardly remember its permanent collection, and the Contemporary Art Museum operates several satellites throughout the city while its central location is closed and in disrepair. In their place, private galleries and pop-up museums funded by NGOs, foreign cultural organizations, and small state stipends have taken the lead in telling the stories of Serbian history. Better yet, they have given individuals a public platform to tell their own stories.

In early February 2013, The Museum of Violence opened in the Belgrade Cultural Center’s Podroom gallery. The museum exhibits medical reports, police reports, x-rays, and photographs as tangible documentation of physical violence that individuals have anonymously donated. At times, a first-person narrative details the circumstances of the attack(s), while most documents are fragments that hint at untold stories. The museum classifies violence into five broad categories: domestic violence, xenophobia, LGBT violence, peer violence (mostly bullying), and institutional violence. MoV is commendable for taking a bold step toward heightening awareness of violence in contemporary Serbia and drawing attention to the prevalence of violence in everyday life without relying on voyeuristic imagery. But there is room for improvement. First, while the medical reports are intended to speak for themselves, medical jargon and x-ray images are not contextualized and remain mostly illegible to non-specialists. For visitors who do not speak the local language, the illegibility of the exhibit extends to the medical and police reports that are presented only in Serbian. Second, the personal narratives are the key link between the physical manifestation of violence and its meaning to the victim—the difference between a broken arm and a hate crime. However, when no narrative is present, little explanation is given about the categorization of violent acts; that is, how does an x-ray suggest the injury was inflicted by xenophobia rather than peer violence? More importantly, these categories implicitly give agency to the aggressor without ascribing accountability. Although it is debatable to what degree the attacker should be present in a museum dedicated to victims, MoV overlooks that the underpinning goal of most acts of violence is to create fear. By reducing violence to medical imagery, the museum does not account for the emotional and psychological effects of physical violence.

Although unfortunately located cities apart, the exhibit at the MoV can be read in dialogue with Igor Grubić’s two-channel video “East Side Story” (2008) displayed at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Grubić pits two streams simultaneously against one another on perpendicular walls: one shows documentary footage of violence during Gay Pride parades in Belgrade in 2001 and Zagreb in 2002, while the other channel plays a modern dance re-interpretation of these events. The footage shows protestors, mobs, and—most pertinently—individual violence against parade participants, bystanders, and the police. At the same time, it is difficult to decipher who is attacking who, and why, leaving us to further question MoV’s typology; for example, how do we categorize the violence against the police or vandalism of the city? In the other projection, dancers are dressed in street clothes as they perform in the urban locations where the violence occurred—while in the background, urban life goes on without interruption. Although they are shown in a continuous sequence of individual performance for the majority of the film, they come together at the end to enact their movements together. This is the first time that the choreographed dance appears violent, not unlike the documentary footage—the solitary dances become volatile in a group setting.

How do these two exhibits function in the post-Yugoslav space? In “East Side Story,” we see the violence—the victims, the aggressors, the setting, and the act—in contrast to an emotional reinterpretation. Grubić’s project reminds us that the psychological effects of violence in the early 2000s linger on the city streets a decade later. However, “East Side Story” also elicits a visceral reaction, but may end up being more voyeuristic than educational (it is hard to look away). Additionally, the projection is nestled in a large art museum far from Zagreb’s center—its relative inaccessibility and lack of contextualization is disarming. Belgrade’s MoV, on the other hand, appears in a downtown location on the Republic Square, meters from the closed National Museum; it is accessible and free. The MoV prioritizes the theme of violence and lends individual victims a platform to share their experience. Yet, by reducing violence to its physical manifestation, the museum leaves the visitor with many unanswered questions. These two different approaches to coming to terms with violence are positive steps toward nurturing civil society in the former Yugoslavia, and they should be viewed side by side. Both hold that violence is foremost a violation of human rights; both aim to promote violence awareness and prevention; both are critical of local society. And both aim to make them better.

Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships contends with a similar agenda of individual voice in a cultural space where it has been generally devalued. This museum is built around objects contributed by donors who remain mostly anonymous. The exhibits are intended to tell the story of “failed relationships and their ruins” through everyday objects that mark their legacy—from clothing and letters, to gifts and seemingly mundane trinkets endowed with personal meaning. Loose categories like distance, death, and elusive foundations organize the collection thematically, while the objects are paired with the narratives of the donors, some short and some detailed, sometimes witty and at other times tragic vignettes about the relationship’s failure. Although the museum claims to offer its contributors “a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation,” many voices point rather to the persistence of cumbersome emotions, unresolved endings, and a distinct lack of closure. Broken relationships, after all, continue to shape individual action, for better or for worse, and likely also inaugurate future relationships. A second critique is that the museum accepts a simple definition of a relationship, one between two heterosexual people and based on either love or lust. MBR could certainly move beyond its novelty if it approached relationships as more diverse, as well as dynamic in their afterlife. Finally, for a museum that was developed in the former Yugoslavia and deals with failed relationships, it is noticeable that the exhibit makes little point to consider the weightier issues of inter-cultural, inter-national, or inter-religious relationships that remain the defining traits of Yugoslav history. The legacy of the broken state, likewise, haunts some of the donated objects, but Yugoslavia remains the elephant in the room.

Beyond the walls of museums and galleries, the streets of both Belgrade and Zagreb can be considered alternative platforms for critical individual voice. In Belgrade, the living gallery spans the city and the suburbs, while in Zagreb it is localized on the walls of the downtown train yard. The lively presence of street art like graffiti, murals, and stencils is emblematic of societies where the voice of the individual remains marginalized and where alternative expression is allowed little room. In both cities, the streets constitute the last resort for individuals and sometimes communities, and serve as a testament that traditional museums and galleries are not yet equipped to serve as a mouthpiece of diversity in post-war societies. It is on the streets of former Yugoslav cities that residents voice political discontent, point out social paradoxes, splash color on the otherwise gray-scape buildings, and effectively integrate themselves into the urban texture. Artists preserve the agency to curate their own work—they choose the location, the medium, the theme. More importantly, street art is visible, accessible, and active: it invites the passerby to look, to photograph, to engage, and to alter. Although it remains largely unsanctioned, the very presence of street art in Belgrade and Zagreb is a living alternative museum of societies-in-crisis, but also proof that they are becoming increasingly more integral, aware, and engaged communities.

In making the case for the powerful role of non-traditional museums, it is not our intent to undermine the place of traditional museums. Rather, we argue that alternative museums play a critical function in filling the post-war political power vacuum in the former Yugoslavia. Where traditional museums are struggling to re-retell the narrative of the state and nation, they continue to overlook the individual voice in societies that remain burdened by the dissolution and its effects. The Museum of Violence and the Museum of Broken Relationships, much like the streets of Belgrade and Zagreb, are important new spaces for coming to terms with the past—of the failed Yugoslav relationship, as much as the 1990s wars and their consequences—but also for building new civil societies and endowing citizens as agents of their own futures.

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