SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — It survived the breakup of the Austrian empire, two world wars, the longest city siege in modern history and a bloody war in the 1990s that killed 100,000 people. Yet after 124 years, Bosnia's National Museum closed its doors Thursday due to dwindling state funding and disputes among rival ethnic groups.
Having not received their salaries for a year, employees gathered at the fountain in the museum's botanical garden and threw a coin into it, making a wish that the institution will reopen soon. Then they left the building in downtown Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and nailed wooden boards that read "closed" across its front door.
Museum director Adnan Busuladzic says he has lost hope that politicians will solve the problem any time soon.
"There are two opposing ideas on how this country should be organized," Busuladzic explained. "This society is at war over those ideas and nobody cares about a museum."
This museum and six other institutions that are the custodians of Bosnia's national heritage – and care for precious medieval manuscripts, religious relicts and natural history artifacts, among other items – are victims of the 1995 peace agreement that ended Bosnia's war. The deal split the Balkan nation along ethnic lines into two semi-autonomous parts linked by a weak central government and guided by a constitution that did not envisaged a ministry of culture.
This left the seven cultural institutions without a guardian and without funding.
For years they have been surviving on donations or often-insufficient, ad-hoc grants from different layers of government and hoping that political leaders from the country's mostly Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks will agree on what to do with Bosnia's shared historical and cultural heritage. The questions extend even to whether to preserve it.
Bosnian Serbs oppose giving the central government control over the cultural sites. Their leaders insist that Bosnia is an artificial state that should be dissolved and that each of the country's ethnic groups has its own heritage.
Bosniaks, meanwhile, say safeguarding the shared history of the Bosnian people is one way to keep the country unified and it was they who scrambled to beg for funds from several ministries. With Europe's debt crisis dragging into a third year, those ministries have no more reserves to tap into now.
To prevent the museum from closing, several students chained themselves to a pole in the lobby and remained inside, declaring they will stay there until the problem is solved and the museum reopens. Dozens of others held a sit-in in front of the building, many refusing to believe that it was truly closing.
"We want this museum to stay open. Tourists are coming to our city, they want to see our culture and history. How? How? All the institutions of culture are closed here," said protester Nihad Alickovic. "Is this a deeper game? To destroy the history of this country? They all should be ashamed because of this."
Bosnia's National Gallery and its Historical Museum closed down earlier this year. With the National Museum's closure, four other cultural institutions are still struggling: The Institute for Monument Protection, the Bosnian Art Gallery, the Bosnian National Theater and another small museum.
For an entire year, the National Museum's 65 employees still came to work every day without being paid. As she left the building Thursday, museum librarian Andrea Dautovic said the issue was not even about her not having a job any more – it was about what Bosnia has lost in the process.
"What will happen with future generations who now are losing this cultural jewel?" she said.