Sarajevo Haggadah in bank vault, 2001. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber
The Bosnia-Herzegonia National Museum in Sarajevo, where the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah is kept, is being forced to close for lack of funds -- the latest in a number of major cultural institutions in Sarajevo forced to shut their doors due to political wrangling and the central government's halting of funds for culture.
In my JTA story I write that Jakob Finci, the longtime leader of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, said the museum, founded in 1888, would close on Thursday due to “lack of money, financing and support from the State.”
He called the decision “tragic,” but said he did not fear for the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, he said would be kept in a safe place.
The haggadah, handwritten in Spain in the 14th century and brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, has been owned by the museum since 1894.
During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, the lavishly illustrated, 109-page book became a symbol of the shattered dream of multi-ethnic harmony in Bosnia. After the war ended in 1995, the U.N. Mission, along with the Bosnian Jewish Community, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Yad Hanadiv and Wolfenson Foundations, facilitated a $150,000 project to restore the Haggadah and prepare a secure, new, climate-controlled room in which to put it on display.
This was opened with a gala ceremony in December 2002. But Finci told JTA that, in recent years, the actual Haggadah was only displayed on four days a year – all the rest of the time a facsimile was shown.
Before it went on public display, I had the rare opportunity of viewing the Haggadah in the underground bank vault in Sarajevo where it was kept, when I accompanied a JDC delegation to Bosnia in 2001.
A bank functionary led us through corridors and down narrow stairways into a basement vault lined with safety deposit boxes.
Wrapped in white tissue paper, the Haggadah was removed from a sealed, blue metal lock box and placed on a table.
Wearing clean, white gloves, a staff member from the Sarajevo national museum then opened the book, turning over page after page to reveal the elegant Hebrew calligraphy and brilliantly colored and gilded illustrations.
An article in April in The Art Newspaper provided some background to the museum crisis.
The National Gallery closed to the public last September. It had been without a director and chief financial officer since May. The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also in Sarajevo, was forced to shut its doors on 4 January after running out of money for maintenance and heating. Staff at both institutions have worked without pay since the respective closures.
The National and University Library, which has had no heating since early January, is next on the list of anticipated closures.
The current crisis is a result of national elections held in 2010, which failed to create a coalition with a parliamentary majority. Without a functioning government, there was no funding for cultural institutions last year.
Museum administrators in Sarajevo say that grants from the new government, formed this February, will not solve the structural problem affecting the institutions. They believe that the institutions need to be funded at a national level if they are to operate effectively in the future. They also want a national cultural ministry to be created.
For further information about the museum and culture crisis in Bosnia see the web site www.cultureshutdown.net