“The Sarajevo Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995” Learning from the past through emotional overwhelm

Actually we came to Sarajevo for the Sarajevo Film Festival to watch movies and experience the vivid and open atmosphere of the town. We realized quickly that Sarajevo can´t be experienced without the memory of the war and the siege from 1992-1996. The town is telling its story to anyone who wants to see and […]

Actually we came to Sarajevo for the Sarajevo Film Festival to watch movies and experience the vivid and open atmosphere of the town. We realized quickly that Sarajevo can´t be experienced without the memory of the war and the siege from 1992-1996. The town is telling its story to anyone who wants to see and wants to listen to.

In an article on Balkan Insight we read about the opening of the Sarajevo Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide 1991-1995 and we decided to visit it.

In an old house in the very city center of Sarajevo there is a small Ferhadija side street where the museum is located. The door was closed so we had to rang – the door opened immediately. The entrance area was very small and narrow. Right on the opposite side of the entrance door there was a checkout point where we paid the entrance fee, then we started our tour through the museum. The first things we saw were photographs of dead bodies and skeletons. Even the skeleton of a pregnant women and her unborn child was depicted. This was the first but not the last shocking moment in the museum.

The Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995 depicts the crimes during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although the members of the organizational team of the museum say that it represents all relevant facts and information about genocide and other crimes on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. The museum actually focuses only on crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Crimes in Kosovo or Croatia are mentioned only on the official infographics made by ICTY. The material which is produced by ICTY shows the basic information about the work of this institution, criminal justice proceedings before the court, indictments, witnesses and other information regarding conflicts on the territory of former Yugoslavia. This information is graphically very well presented and gives the visitor crucial information about the war in Yugoslavia and international criminal justice methods implemented in this region. Alongside the ICTY material, visitors can watch films about the war, including ‘City under Siege’, ‘The End of Impunity – Sexual Violence before the Tribunal’ and ‘Through Their Eyes’.

In one room, the museum presents a collection of photographs depicting concentration camps in Bosnia. In the same room visitors can watch ICTY outreach video materials which includes testimonies, excerpts from trials and investigation videos.

In the next room many photographs can be seen which depict victims, usually bloody mutilated dead bodies even the ones of small children. From this point to the end of the exhibition, the museum is giving emphasis on the photographic presentation of explicit violence that occurred during the war in B&H. This presentation is accompanied with personal belongings of victims and perpetrators.

The relation between victims and perpetrators are pretty obvious in the exhibition. Victims are portrayed as totally deformed dead bodies covered in blood. The museum does not hesitate to show the explicit violence including the exact acts of killing. Symbolic representations of national symbols like a flag or a coat of arms used by the Serbian army are usually presented alongside knives, bats, wire and other torture weapons which clearly states the intention of how the perpetrator wanted to be represented. This approach is strengthened by the depiction of relentless violence. At the very end of the exhibition,we entered a replica of a Serbian prison cell. Two mannequins symbolized prisoners with lacerated clothes and trails of blood on their heads. All in all, they looked like people who were recently tortured. On the other side of the room there was a bucket with strange liquids in it, which looked like excrements. The whole room smelled like vomit. We were very irritated by this and weren´t sure if this smell is there on purpose.

“There is no such museum in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a museum that includes all the facts from the period 1992-1995 in one place,” said Alija Gluhovic, Museum organizer. But, the museum does not represent all the established facts and all crimes that were committed in B&H. Crimes committed by Croatian or Bosnian forces are not visible in the exhibition. There are only one or two exhibits depicting war crimes committed by the Croatian Defense Council on the Bosniak civilians, and the museum is giving the over simplified version of the conflict between only two national groups: Serbs and Bosniaks. Because many components of the complex conflict that produced genocide are not visible through the photographs of mutilated bodies, it is difficulty to critically examine the crimes, reasons why it happened and different sides of it through this museum.

The Museum presents criminal justice proceedings very well by emphasizing graphic and visual presentation. It gives a good informational background about certain crimes and places of mass violence, like concentration, camps trough video material. It also has a big collection of items which belonged to victims or perpetrators of genocide and other crimes.

For the visitors without previous knowledge it is really difficult to understand the vicious cycle of violence depicted in this museum. Although important documents and information dealing with the historical context of the war are exhibited, it is still not easy to understand the different perspectives of conflicted sides and to critically examine the genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred in B&H.

Authors of the Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide have a literal and direct approach towards the crimes that happened, and they decided to face visitors with explicit content of mass violence and brutal reality of suffering and pain of tortured human bodies.It seems that the showing of these photographs serves only one purpose – to shock; learning from the past through emotional overwhelm. The question that should be asked in every museum depicting mass violence of 20th century is what is the purpose of showing this violence, how to present it and confront the visitor with incomprehensible experiences and emotions produced by these crimes. To find a suitable way to deal with the crimes during the National Socialism in the field of political education the so called “Beutelsbacher Konsens” was implemented in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1976. One of the contents was the “overwhelmed forbade” which should avoid the manipulation of the education process in a certain direction through provoking of emotions.

But this is what the Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide is doing. Through the depiction of horror, which provokes fear and disgust among the visitors a learning from the past process is initiated, which strengthens a clear picture of the enemy.This museum is definitely not a suitable place for education. In this museum the visitors don´t get the chance to develop a critical and reflexive view on the past events while dealing with different perspectives.It is more a place of “war tourism” which represents the picture of the war in Sarajevo which represents the picture of the war in Sarajevo which is expected by the tourists.

Blog by Katja Lorenz & Nikola Puharić