Posts Tagged ‘ Museums ’

Tourist Tips: Sightseeing in Sarajevo

I think Bosnia is Europe’s best-kept secret.  Someday, I believe this beautiful country will be filled with tourists, so I almost hesitate to write this post of encouragement.  However…for those who are interested in visiting Sarajevo, here are my…

Top 6 Sightseeing Recommendations:

  1. Baščaršija –No tourist will miss Baščaršija, or the old city, which is designed in the Ottoman Turkish style.  In the middle of the narrow stone streets one finds Sebilj, which is a wooden fountain that sits in what tourists call “Pigeon Square.”  Take a drink from the fountains located around the city because Bosnia has very high quality water that comes fresh from the surrounding mountains. Baščaršija is the best place to drink a strong Bosnian (Turkish-style) coffee, to eat ćevapi with a side of kajmak, or to buy hand crafted copper souvenirs.

    Sebilj

  2. History Museum (Historijski Muzej, Bosne I Hercegovina) – Visitors should go to the History Museum when they first arrive, which is located across from the train and bus stations.  This museum hosts a permanent exhibition on the siege, which provides a better insight into the country’s recent history.  The exhibition is small and tasteful, and visitors follow a chronological path from the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Photos show how the city looked during the war, displays explain every day life during the siege, and a section devoted to the life of children during this time is particularly moving.  The museum is located not far from the Holiday Inn where journalists stayed during the war, which sits on the former “Sniper’s Alley.”  (Zmaja od Bosne 5, 08:00 – 15:00 daily, Tickets: 2 km)

    History Museum, Siege Exhibition

  3. Latin Bridge and Museum of  Sarajevo 1878 – 1918: This bridge, which was formerly called Princip’s Bridge, was the location of the spot from which Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on 28 June 1914.  The museum, which is right next to the bridge, better explains the event which triggered World War I and Sarajevo during the Austro-Hungarian period (1878-1918) in general.  The museum is small but worth seeing.  (Zelenih beretki 1, Mon – Fri: 10:00 – 16:00; Sat: 10:00 – 15:00, Tickets: 2 km)

    Latin Bridge

  4. Jewish Museum (Muzej Jevre BiH): This museum is housed in the Old Synagogue.  The building did not suffer much damage during the war because it is set back in a courtyard, and it actually protected collections from other museums.  The displays explain the fascinating history of the Jewish Community in Bosnia through the Communist period.  This community is a special interest of mine and I was fascinated to learn more about their history in the country, especially from their arrival in the mid 16th century through the 19th century (Read here and here).  My only complaint is that the museum does not talk about the important humanitarian role the Jewish community during the war.  Nearby visitors can walk past the Markale Market, which was the site of two massacres during the war, the second of which prompted NATO air strikes.  (Velika Avlija bb, Mon – Fri: 10:00 – 16:00; Sun: 10:00 – 13:00, Tickets: 2 km)

    Inside the Jewish Museum

  5. Alija Izetbegović Museum: I was very curious to look inside this small museum which is housed in an old town fort and dedicated to the former president (1st president) of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The museum victimizes the country of Bosnia, and praises the leadership of Izetbegović and his “intellectual contributions” like the Islamic Declaration.  Mostly, the museum is like a shrine, containing valuable gifts from other world leaders, his old uniforms, and quotes of praise for his leadership.  Since this museum requires a walk up a steep hill, go a little bit further to the old fortress for a great view of the old city and river.  Walk through Kovači Cemetery where Izetbegović himself is buried.  (Ploca, Seasonal hours, Open at 10:00 daily and closed on Sundays, Tickets: 2 km)

    View from above Kovači Cemetery

  6. Vrelo Bosne: Even a short trip to Sarajevo should include some of the breathtaking Bosnian nature.  The best way to enjoy the forests and streams surrounding the city is to visit Vrelo Bosne, which is a national park located at the source of the River Bosne on the outskirts of Sarajevo.  The park is filled with paths and over streams, waterfalls and ponds.  There are a few cafes nearby, and this shady spot is perfect in the summer.  The park is an easy tram ride away from the city center until the end of the line, and then for 15 km, a horse drawn carriage will deliver you to the park itself.  The 25 minute tram ride is also a nice way to see the different neighborhoods of Sarajevo out the window on the way.

    Vrelo Bosne

Enjoy Sarajevo!

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Conflicts of Ostalgie: Budapest’s Statue Park

After World War II, the Soviet Union’s political, economic, and military consolidation of Central and Eastern Europe was enforced through a highly visible ideological campaign.  Symbols of change and progress were constructed in the form of buildings, bridges, and towers adorned with the Red Star of Communism.  Posters of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin ushering in a utopian future hung in classrooms and factories, while statues of triumphant workers reflected that under the Soviet regime, art was used as a tool to educate the masses about the rewards of a collective society.  Other propagandistic monuments honoring the Soviet Army’s triumph over Nazi fascism were seen in every park and city square throughout Russia and the Soviet bloc countries in the post-war era.  These public works were blatantly symbolic of a new future.

Entrance to Budapest's Statue Park

The fate of these monuments in the post-Communist era, that is, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 fall of Communism, differed in each country of Central and East Europe.  Focusing on the monuments of one place, Budapest, one can examine the collective memory of Hungarians through memorialization of their recent history.  This former Soviet bloc country has dealt with the symbols of its Communist past in the form of an open-air sculpture museum called Statue Park. Many Hungarians have found this to be a useful though problematic solution for what to do with their Soviet era statues, which reflects collective memory of Hungary’s unique history during the Communist period.

Propaganda Poster of Comrade Rakosi

Hungary is a special example on which to focus because of its history during Communism, which began with practically a dictatorship and ended with relatively good living conditions in comparison to neighboring countries. Mátyás Rákosi, the chief secretary of the Communist Party during the Stalinist period, exercised totalitarian rule over the country and ruthlessly persecuted innocent people deemed to be “state enemies” with his special police force.  No other leader was trusted more by Stalin, and Rákosi developed a cult of personality with his images and statues spread throughout the country to remind everyone of his “wisdom”.

With a failing economy, poor living conditions, and virtually no freedom of speech, student demonstrators attempted to regain control of their own government with both large and small demands during the 1956 Revolution. In addition to demanding the removal of the Soviet troops and insisting on the right to free press, Hungarian revolutionaries insisted upon many symbolic changes, such as the replacement of the Soviet military uniforms with the old Hungarian style uniforms, the restoration of national holidays, and the coat of arms switched back to tradition.  Visible symbols are extremely meaningful and as in the words of George Schöpflin, the ‘use of flags, monuments and ceremonies is not a superfluous extravagance, but a central component of identity creation and maintenance”.  Although the Revolution worked for a short time, within weeks the Soviet Army regrouped and returned to control Hungary with a vengeance.  Many of the demonstrators were killed or injured, and after the Soviet Union regained control, thousands were imprisoned for having participated in the rebellion, and over two hundred people received the death penalty.  Until the fall of Communism in 1991, the records of this Revolution were hidden in Hungary and Hungarians were not permitted by the government to mention the events that took place in 1956.

1956 Hungarian Revolution

By the mid-1960s, life in Hungary improved with János Kádár as prime minister. He conducted a great deal of counterrevolutionary terror in the beginning years of his political office, but he also reorganized and reformed the Communist government.  In contrast to Rákosi, Kádár worked under the motto of “who is not against us is with us” and populations of other communist countries looked at developments in Hungary with envy.  He produced a set of economic reforms and allowed peasants to own private plots of land and to sell their products at uncontrolled prices in an open market.  The country’s economy thrived and Hungary had many goods and amenities not available in neighboring countries.  Greater value was placed on public opinion and human rights improved.  Often the period under Kádár with its mix of ideologies is referred to as “goulash communism” which is a witty pun on the national dish with many ingredients.

This unique communist history of Hungary influenced the debates that emerged over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments that still spread throughout the capital city Budapest in 1991. Statue Park, one solution to the Soviet monument problem, is a physical manifestation of the mixed feelings Hungarians have towards their communist past. Budapest’s post-Communist city authorities were divided over the question of what to do with the most visible symbols of the old Soviet regime.  Numerous statues and monuments stood throughout the city honoring both Soviet and Hungarian Communist leaders and many suggestions were proposed for how to handle these symbols”.  One group campaigned to have all of the statues removed in order to cleanse the city of Communist traces.  A more extremist group threatened to blow up the statues if they were not taken away.  Yet another group thought the statues should remain in their respective places as reminders of Hungary’s experience with the Communism, which helped to shape its history.  There were many residents of Budapest who did not care one way or another.

In December 1991 the General Assembly of Budapest reached a decision.  Each individual district of Budapest would decide for itself which of the statues were to be removed and which would remain in place.   This process exemplified the new democracy in Hungary.  If a district opted to have the statues removed, they would not be destroyed; rather, they would be relocated to Statue Park, the new sculpture park on the outskirts of the Budapest. The cost of relocation was estimated at an exorbitant $616,000 due to the sheer size and massive weight of the Soviet style public sculptures.  However, Budapest city authorities predicted that these costs would be recovered by the financial gains of a sculpture park that could tap into the huge foreign tourist boom that the city was experiencing since the fall of Communism.

Ariel View of the Design of Statue Park

A competition called for designs for Statue Park, and the Hungarian architect Arkos Eleod was chosen democratically through a juried selection process.  Eleod’s intention was to create a park both politically and artistically neutral, neither celebrating nor condemning Communism.  His purpose was to acknowledge the statues as part of the history of Hungary.  Eleod did not want to create a park to express his own anti-propaganda message, as he did not want to erase the original meanings of the sculptures.   Although Western critics have unfairly labeled Eleod’s park a “theme park,” Statue Park was intended to be and succeeds at being an open-air museum that thoughtfully commemorates a significant aspect of modern Hungarian history.

Statue Park, built on a half-acre of land in southern Budapest, opened to visitors in 1993.  Despite its name, the open-air museum contains more than just statues.  It consists of a wide variety of monuments from the Communist period, most dating from after the 1956 Revolution. Of the forty-one sculptures in the space, seventeen are statues or busts, thirteen are memorial plaques and the remaining eleven are metal or stone monuments.   Situated near the entrance of the Park are the sculpted boots from the Stalin monument that the 1956 revolutionaries demanded to be removed and ultimately chopped down at the knees.  For several days after the Revolution, Stalin’s disembodied boots symbolically stood on their pedestal, as they do today near the entrance of Statue Park.

Stalin's Boots Through the Entrance of Statue Park

The carefully designed Statue Park assigns these re-located massive statues new meanings.   Considerable attention was given to the organization of the Park so that it would avoid looking like a dumping ground for old memorials.  The design and layout contains many references to the Soviet period.  Statues of Marx and Lenin stand within an imposing façade at the entrance.  The red brick structure mocks Neoclassical Socialist Realist architecture, a style that aimed to make Russia “a natural successor to classical architecture but on its own legitimate terms”.   The Park itself is arranged with figure eight-shaped pathways that radiate off one central straight pathway.  The statues and monuments are displayed around these figure-eights. In the center of the Park, there is a flowerbed that forms the shape of a Soviet star.  Whichever direction visitors walk, they are led back to the same starting point.  The central pathway that abruptly leads to a brick wall is essentially a dead end. This obstacle, along with the whole layout, according to historian Duncan Light, represents the “dead end” that Communism represented for Hungary.

Based on Western museum models, Statue Park is owned by the city of Budapest but operated by a private company.  The company charges a small admission fee and manages the modest souvenir shop. The shop sells t-shirts with anti-Communist slogans, lighters depicting Lenin’s face, CDs of Communist music, as well as assorted candles, postcards, and posters.  One poster, as a spoof on the cartoon South Park, features Communist figures Lenin and Stalin standing in what is labeled “East Park”.  Such clever merchandise tempts the many Western visitors to the Park.  Yet the souvenirs are not the only reason tourists come to Statue Park. Many foreign visitors come to this unusual tourist attraction to gain a deeper understanding of Budapest’s history.  Their seriousness is revealed by the fact that they must seek out a bus to travel about 30 minutes from the city center to get to the Park, located in an out-of-the-way district of the city bordering a working class, industrial suburb.

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Statue Park, while unique in many ways within Central and Eastern Europe, is not the only park of its kind in former Communist countries.  Both Russia and Lithuania have placed their respective Communist statues in parks as well. Neither the Russian nor the Lithuanian park functions as an outdoor museum, and the Russian park does not appear to be as well planned as Statue Park.  In Moscow, Russian officials placed some Communist-era monuments in a park named ‘Graveyard for Fallen Monuments’.   Here, a few Communist statues are haphazardly displayed among hundreds of other monuments that have little to do with the politics of the Soviet era, many perhaps commissioned during Lenin’s public art campaign in 1918.  All the statues have been removed from their original locations and dispersed throughout a grassy field.  This carefree atmosphere detracts from the Communist statues, which are inexplicably placed next to sculptures of cats, Ghandi, and other subjects.  The seemingly arbitrarily chosen and arranged statues suggest to visitors that Russia is brushing over its Communist history.

The Lithuanians have taken a more methodical approach with their outdoor statue display called Grutas Park.  Coined “Stalin World” by the locals, the park presents Lithuania’s Soviet-era statues along a beautifully landscaped path surrounded by lush trees and a lake. In addition to this open-air display and an outdoor gallery, Grutas Park is also host to an amusement park, a playground, a campsite, and even a zoo.  In this context, the Communist statues become part of a “Disneyesque” entertainment park, which in turn diminishes the seriousness of the Lithuanian effort to memorialize its history.

Grutas Park, Lithuania

James Young studies the ever-evolving relationship between a state and its memorials.  He writes that, “on the one hand, official agencies are in position to shape memory explicitly as they see fit, memory that best serves a national interest.  On the Other hand, once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intentions”.   Although speaking of Holocaust memorials, these sentiments are true for the memorials in Statue Park.  The Communist authorities created the Soviet-era statues in Statue Park for propagandistic reasons.  In post-Communist Hungary, new meanings are assigned to these “leftovers” that reflect the new independent state.  Statue Park, the carefully constructed site of these statues, acts as a memorial in itself.  As Young explains, “New generations visit memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings” .  Statue Park allows for a location for this act of collective identity construction.  As a place to reflect, the park shows Hungarian’s mixed feelings of the country’s recent past.

A preliminary interpretation of Budapest’s Statue Park asserts that the creation of such a park reflects Hungary’s confidence in the post-Communist era.  The Park suggests that the country is accepting of its past and wants to remember this critical period in its history.  Despite Hungary’s initial debate over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments throughout Budapest, there was surprisingly little protest over the construction of Statue Park.  This acceptance of the Park reflects the country’s history of “goulash communism”, which was a mix of ideologies and not communism in the strictest sense. Although Hungary had a harsh dictator for the Stalinist era, by the mid-1960s life in the country improved in comparison to neighboring countries.  With this history of political extremities, collective memory of communism in Hungary reflects mixed sentiments, as shown in Statue Park.    The National History Museum in Budapest, another popular tourist destination, seems to take a similar stance of acceptance of communism, but one that is also tempered with historical amnesia.  Opened in 1996, the museum contains a gallery that includes patriotic posters, a statue of Stalin, and displays on the gradual collapse of Communism over many decades.   The artifacts are presented as symbols of how Hungary overcame Communism but with little mention of the hardships the country endured.

Upon further consideration, Statue Park also represents how Hungarians are uneasy with their communist history.  The Park was built on the outskirts of Budapest, so that only the most dedicated of tourists will visit.  The statues were removed from the most prominent locations around the city to the periphery.  Although the park was carefully designed, the location alone shows that Hungarians are not entirely accepting of their communist past. Although the economic situation in Hungary prospered after the mid-1960s and many consumer goods were available that were non-existent in neighboring countries, people did not have the freedom of expression of a democratic society.  For example, people were not allowed to speak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 throughout the communist years or they would be considered subversive.

Statue Park promotes this multi-faceted way of remembering the Soviet period, as the sculptures carry meanings from their original contexts in the streets of Budapest and assume new, more critical meanings from their placement in the Park. Some native Hungarians are perplexed and even saddened that Statue Park draws such tourist appeal.  Perhaps these are the Hungarians who wish to ignore or erase the Communist period of their history.  However, other Hungarians are attracted to the nostalgia the Park offers.  For decades, Communism was the only life they knew.   Germany has a term for this sentiment: ostalgie.  The word, which is a combination of ost for east, and nostalgie for nostalgia, describes an East German longing for items that were no longer sold after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Berlin.  Some East Berliners missed specific food brands and old television shows, which led a re-unifed Germany to cater to this market, despite the fact that these products symbolize oppression under a former Socialist regime.

With regard to Statue Park, this concept of ostalgie comes into play most overtly with the souvenir CD of Communist propaganda songs that is sold at the gift shop and played over the loud speakers in the Park itself.  The shop originally released the CD, which satirizes the Soviet era and presumably expresses disdain for that time.  Ironically, the album is loved by young Hungarians and reached number one on the Hungarian music charts.  This suggests that feelings towards Communism in Hungary are not only complex and but that the meanings of Statue Park and its merchandise are far from monolithic.

Statue Park Logo

Statue Park can be seen as an ideal way for a country like Hungary to at once remember its past and look to the future.  Statue Park symbolically overcomes the Soviet era without ignoring it completely.  The outdoor space keeps the memorials in a contained area removed from the city center.  Hungarians and foreign visitors who were once confronted constantly with the Communist statues throughout central Budapest must now make a special trip to the outskirts of the city to seek out the experience.  Tourists can make the trip, as can nostalgic, curious, or historically conscious Hungarians.  By displaying the individual memorials in a closed-off space, far from their original locations, the Park allows Hungarians to preserve their history but also put it in its place.  Although Hungarians remain ambivalent and divided about Statue Park and their own unique Communist history, they are confronting their past in ways that suit their cultural needs and political ambitions.  Statue Park, in its strategically chosen location and well-thought out design, reflects Hungary’s desire to compartmentalize its past while forging ahead with its future.

Click below for a list of my resources for this post…

statue park bibliography

Tourist Tips: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

After traveling to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, I would highly recommend visiting this interesting corner of Europe.  February is certainly not high tourist season for these chilly locations, but there was something very nice about the typical Baltic pastel buildings peeking out from the white snow.  I would never recommend rushing through several countries but I felt satisfied with a day or two in each city, especially in the winter.  My time was limited on this trip, but if I went back I would try to explore some smaller towns, especially in Lithuania.  I would like to provide a list of tips for backpackers or students traveling to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on a budget.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Transportation: Coming from Poland, I took a night bus with Eurolines from Warsaw to Tallinn.  This is not the most efficient way to travel to Estonia, but the ticket was very cheap with my student discount (225 PLN one way, or 56 euros).  Another option is to try to find a cheap flight to Riga.  My friends took a ferry from Helsinki which they said was really enjoyable. Once in the Baltics, the cities are an easy bus ride apart.

BUS TICKETS:

  • Warsaw to Tallinn – 225 PLN (about 21 hours)
  • Tallinn to Tartu – 140 EEK (about 2.5 hours)
  • Tartu to Riga – 168 EEK (about 4 hours)
  • Riga to Vilnius – 9 LAT (about 5 hours)
  • Vilnius to Warsaw – 95 Litas (about 10 hours overnight)

TALLINN, ESTONIA
Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, is situated on the Baltic Sea and has an enjoyable city center.

Baltic Sea - Tallinn, Estonia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Soviet War Monument: Take a stroll along the Baltic Sea to search for this leftover memorial that was erected over the graves of German soldiers during the Soviet occupation of Estonia.  (Pirata tee)
  2. Museum of Occupations of Estonia: Occupied by the Soviet Union, then briefly by Nazi Germany before another four and a half decades of Soviet occupation, this museum presents the 20th century history of Estonia through memorabilia and videos.    I also quite liked the architecture of the building itself.  (Toompea 8)
  3. Free walking tour from tourist information center:  The tourist center offers free 2 hour walking tours of the center and the guide explains the legends and history of Tallinn.  She will also ask for a tip at the end.  Check the office at Mundi tanav 2 for details because the times change seasonally.

Food: I did not have great luck with Estonian food so here are other recommendations.

  • Reval Café (Vene 1)  Sit next to a cozy fireplace as you eat reasonably priced omeletes, salads, and light dishes in the center.
  • KehrWieder (Saiakang 1)  With a few locations throughout the city, this was the best coffee I have had in a long time.
  • EAT Dumpling and Doughnut Café http://www.eat.ee/ (Sauna 2)  Visit this modest café to eat dumplings priced by weight with local students.

Accommodation: I stayed in two hostels in Tallinn, and Tallinn Backpackers Hostel (Olevimägi 11) was far better than Euphoria Hostel.  The place was conveniently located in the Old Town, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the rooms were clean.  Because the hostel is multi-leveled, you can be social if you want or go to bed early.  80ish EEK/8 USD for a dorm bed.

View of Tallinn, Estonia

TARTU, ESTONIA
Tartu is the university city of Estonia and only a short bus ride from Tallinn.

Town Hall - Tartu, Estonia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Toomemagi (Cathedral Hill): Take a walk past quaint bridges, through thick woods, and discover a ruined gothic cathedral.
  2. Tartu Ulikool (Tartu University):  The city centers around these academic buildings and the student-life within…
  3. Estonian National Museum: This museum tracks the history, life and traditions of the Estonian people.  There are displays of holidays, costumes and crafts.  (Veski 32)

Food Recommendations:

  • Crepp: Quiche, soups, and meals with fresh ingredients and a cool ambiance.  (Ruutli 16)

Transportation:
Tartu to Riga – 4ish hours, 168 EEK

RIGA, LATVIA
Riga was my favorite stop during this trip for the interesting architecture and vibe of a bigger city.

House of Blackheads - Riga, Latvia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia: The museum explains the tumultuous history of Latvia from 1940-1991 through powerful displays, memorabilia and one room with a reconstruction of gulag barracks.  Free with the suggestion of a donation. (Strēlnieku laukums 1)
  2. House of Blackheads and other architecture…  The city is known for its art nouveau style architecture, among other influences.  Take a walking tour and start in the center at the House of Blackheads.
  3. Market Hall:  Browse through this enormous market hall near the bus station to get a feel for every day life in Latvia.  There are five connected pavilions selling everything from meat to souvenirs to underwear. Definitely worth taking a walk through or pausing for something to eat.  (Negu iela 7)

Food/Accommodation Recommendations:

  • Dome Pearl Hostel: This hostel was the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in and felt more like a hotel.  Centrally located, the place is clean and is operated by an endearing Russian grandmother who offered us coffee and tried to set me up with another traveler.  (4 Tirgoņu iela) http://www.dome-hostel.com
  • Lido Restaurant: This is a chain Latvian restaurant with several locations and lob cabin interiors.  The food is served buffet style but prepared and grilled in sight. A great way to taste hearty Latvian food and its relatively cheap for the portion sizes.

Transportation:

Bus Riga to Vilnius – 9 Lat

Riga at Night

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA
The largest and capital city of Lithuania and contains the largest Old Town in East Europe.

Art in the Center of Riga

My favorite sights/activities:

  1. Lithuanian State Jewish Museum/Centre for Tolerance:  Vilnius once contained a flourishing Jewish community and this museum explains its very interesting and difficult history.  The museum also contains an eclectic art collection of Jewish artists in all media.  (Naugarduko gatve 10/2)
  2. Uzupis district: The Montmartre of Vilnius, this artist district of the city has a bohemian feel with many galleries and cafes. In 1997, the residents of the area declared a Republic of Užupis, with its own flag, currency, president, and constitution which is posted in several languages near the main square. They celebrate this independence annually on Užupis Day, which falls on April 1st/April Fool’s Day when they stamp people’s passports upon entering.

Uzupis

I recommend seeing these three countries together in one trip.  I had a great time and hope that some of these suggestions are useful for other travelers and backpackers to the Baltics.

Sarajevo’s Contemporary Art Scene

Even though I only visited Sarajevo for a few days this summer, I did not get the impression that the city has a thriving contemporary art scene.  We toured the National Museum and the Bosnian History Museum but did not have enough time for gallery-hopping.  Sarajevo is a great city for strolling through the narrow, bustling streets but one does not see public art while walking.  In fact, the only public art that I did see was outside the National Museum- an ironic concrete block with the inscription: “Under this stone there is a monument to the victims of the war and Cold War.”  I snapped a photo as I am interested in public art and memorializing without realizing until today that the piece is by the only Bosnian artist I know, Braco Dimitrijević.  In October 2007, I drove four hours from my university to hear him speak near my parent’s home in Philadelphia.  He spoke at the Slought Foundation on his series “The Casual Passer-By” and although my father fell asleep in the audience and I did not understand everything he discussed, these early experiences led me to study the Balkans today.


Still, there must be more to Bosnian contemporary art than Braco Dimitrijević.  Today I am thrilled to read an article in the NY Times travel section discussing this very topic.  The article illuminates the struggles of contemporary art in Sarajevo, the gallery scene, and hopes for the future.  I am pleased to read that abandoned spaces in the city are now used to showcase local contemporary art.  Apparently the Ars Aevi contemporary art museum is open by appointment only because of financial reasons, but other galleries are mentioned that I would like to check out on my next visit.  Finally, I learned that Bosnia is planning a biennial for contemporary art to begin in 2011 if all goes according to plan.

Organizing a biennial with Serbia’s Ministry of Culture shows commitment towards creating a unified national identity and forging a future of tolerance and acceptance.  Hopefully the Council of Europe will follow through on their promise of finances, because this event would be a great opportunity for Bosnian artists with different ethnic backgrounds to work together.  I am a firm believer in the powers of art to create a sense of community.  If this biennial is a success, artists currently lost in the country’s rehabilitation process will be recognized.  Maybe Bosnia and Europe will see the need for more public art especially in the city of Sarajevo in order to help the country deal with the past.  A Serbian friend once cynically remarked that the Balkans have bigger issues than worrying about modern art.  Although I admit to being somewhat idealistic, I think that art is a great way to deal with some of these “issues”.  A greater importance placed on art in the Balkans in general and Bosnia specifically means steps towards a future of acceptance and peace.  The article in the NY Times today gives me hope.

For those traveling to Sarajevo, these are the galleries noted in the article:

Charlama Depot Gallery, Centar Skenderija, Terezije; (387-33) 203-178. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Saturday (9 a.m. for the Sub Dokumenta exhibition).

Galerija 10m2 and Duplex/10m2, Stakleni Grad, Ferhadija 15; (387-63) 952-197; galerija10m2sarajevo.unblog.fr and www.duplex10m2.com. Both galleries are open 2 to 7 p.m. (closed Wednesday and Sunday).

Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art, Obala Kulina Bana 22; (387-33) 665-304; www.scca.ba and www.pro.ba; visits by appointment only.

Obala Meeting Point, Hamdije Kresevljakovica 13, Skenderija; (387-33) 668-186. A cafe where mini-exhibitions are often on display; video pieces by artists are sometimes screened in the adjacent cinema.

Arbeit Macht Frei

Who the hell would steal the “Arbeit macht frei” sign from Auschwitz?  Meaning ‘Work sets you free’ and constructed by prisoners from the camp, the entrance sign is symbolic of the Holocaust.  The camp, in which 1-1.5 milion people died,  has been a museum since 1945.  The sign is 5 meters long and weighs 40 kilograms.  I wonder how such a large sign was taken unnoticed, but apparently the one security camera used was blinded by the snow.  Borders were closed in case the sign is on its way out of the country, 50 criminal investigators are patrolling the camp grounds with dogs, and a temporary replica was installed in the sign’s place.

Who would do such a thing?  The museum has 1 million visitors every year, and the memorial stands as an important educational tool.  World leaders are outraged, and I have to agree that this act could only be antisemitic.  Will the sign go up for sale?  Will this symbol of the Holocaust be destroyed in an act of hatred? I have nothing new to say about this hurtful act of vandalism, but I feel truly sick over this piece of news, and I hope the criminals are caught and imprisoned.  This sign is more than just pieces of guilded iron- it is possibly the most recognized symbol of the millions of  people that died in the Holocaust.

Tribute to Dan Perjovschi

Last week traveling through Romania (hence the lull in writing), I had the good fortune of stumbling upon an exhibition by one of my favorite artists- Dan Perjovschi. The exhibition, entitled Chestii tripartite (Printed stuff), was held at The City Museum of Art, in Cluj-Napoca, a large university city in Transylvania. Dan Perjovschi was born in Sibiu, Romania in 1961 and currently lives and works in Bucharest. He transformed the medium of drawing, using it to create installation and performances. The drawings, simple in form, communicate volumes about global and local issues and present a political commentary in response to current events. Dan’s wife, Lia, is also an artist, mainly focusing on performance art and they often work together. Between the installations and the performances, viewers need to be in the right city at the right time to see the work. Dan has exhibited all around the world, including Portugal, Germany, the United States, Romania, Kosovo…etc.

Installation at MOMA (2007)

In the summer of 2007, I stood in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, transfixed by the drawings that took over the atrium walls. Everyone stood with heads tilted back, staring at the drawings stretching a few stories high. It was the first time I had ever seen or heard of Dan Perjovschi, and I was newly interested in East Europe at the time. Immediately I realized that there was something inherently different about his outlook on the world from the typical Western-centric perspective of which I am accustomed. The “political cartoons” touched on a diverse set of issues, including the US military, globalization, identity, fashion trends, global warming, and art politics. The collage of images provided an installation that transformed the usually sterile museum walls and the space as a whole, drawing the viewer into the artwork.

Judging from his cartoon-inspired drawings today, one might not guess that Dan was classically trained in fine arts in Romania. During the Ceausescu dictatorship, he was identified at a young age as possessing a special talent for art, and he began the state-run art school at the age of 10. However, Dan was quickly disillusioned with the restrictions of state art, and he did not feel that he could fully express himself with the medium of painting and the subject matter chosen for him. Drawing and performance later became his means for fully expressing himself in response to social and political issues. Censorship was very strict for artists in Romania under Ceausescu, and Dan states that “self-censorship ruled” as artists were forced to comply. Desperate for freedom of expression in the 1980s, Dan covered his whole apartment in white paper and drew all over, and he said it was as if he were “living in his own drawings.” One can notice the influence of this repressive time on the format of his later work. Dan’s installations, like the one in MOMA, takes on similar collage form, and the viewer is truly invited into the mind of the artist. Dan spent two weeks drawing on MOMA’s walls, and visitors to the museum could actually watch the artist at work.

Although I checked to see if the Perjovschis had any exhibit in Bucharest before embarking on my university trip, I did not think to check the museums in the city of Cluj-Napoca. I could not believe my luck when I walked by the city museum only a few hours before heading back to Krakow to discover that I was just in time to see a retrospective of Dan Perjovschi one hour before the museum closed. As the title suggests, the exhibition was a collection of Dan’s printed work- mostly books and catalogues of his site-specific sketches. Although I was somewhat disappointed that this exhibition did not include a new installation, the show provided an invaluable opportunity for me to review his work from the past decade. I could flip through books and compare the drawings he made in different places in different years. The information is hard to obtain in the United States and I felt completely overwhelmed to see evidence of so much work in one place by such a prolific artist.

If you ever have the opportunity to see some of Dan Perjovschi’s work in person, I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Coming from a country that seems to be pretty cynical in general, Dan’s drawings are extremely insightful and witty. He provides a unique perspective on today’s world, and I think that the 2007 show in MOMA is a huge part of the reason I am studying East Europe today.

Download Dan’s Newspaper of Work from the 2007 MOMA Exhibition Here

Museum or Attraction?

I was extremely excited to go to the Warsaw Uprising Museum on my recent trip to Poland’s capital, but sorely disappointed by the tourist trap I found.  I mean no disrespect to the heroic resistance group that stood up to Nazi Germany in 1944; rather, I wish to discuss the organization of the museum itself.  As a former art history student who has worked in museums, galleries, and curated a couple of dozen art shows, perhaps I am a bit harsh on museums in general.  However, I found the Warsaw Uprising Museum to be poorly organized, failing to communicate much information, and downright tacky.

crowdsinwarsaw

tackytunnels

(above) Warsaw Uprising Museum: Crowds waiting to go upstairs, and tunnels in the basement.

Perhaps my biggest mistake was to visit the museum on a Sunday when admission is free, but I was with my school and had no choice.  I should also add right from the beginning that everyone else in my group seemed to be impressed and to really enjoy the museum.  In my opinion, the biggest problem with the museum was its failure to communicate information about the Uprising, and I left feeling like I had learned nothing.  It was truly a museum for people who do not like museums, as seen in their many different gimmicks to portray the events of the Uprising, and thus the information was lost.  I love when museums use innovative and interactive ways to educate the public.  For example, I thought Budapest’s House of Terror Museum was surprisingly worth seeing in a city with dozens of great museums.  No photographs were allowed, and there was an easy-to-follow chronological path.  Visitors could watch news clips, pick up phones to hear different audio recordings, and see memorabilia from different events throughout the 20th century history of Hungary.  In addition to the informative handouts in each room that visitors could take home, the best part of this museum was that it was an easy to understand walk through history.

IMG_2710 Facade of House of Terror, Budapest Hungary (no photography allowed inside museum)

Despite the obvious fact that the museum in Warsaw modeled itself after the museum in Budapest, right down to the same font on the information papers in each room, it was as if the Warsaw Uprising Museum exploded into chaos.  The expansive rooms make it easy to take a wrong turn and quickly get confused about the information portrayed.  The booming sound of bombs dropping rang in my ears the whole time I tried to explore the museum, and the pushing of little kids to look into every peephole or screen quickly got annoying.  It was as if the museum thought they needed to portray the information quickly, rather than effectively, so they rapidly flashed images of historic events at every turn.  I quickly grew tired of waiting behind lines of children to look at the images through binoculars for no apparent reason.  The claustrophobic tunnels in the basement felt like a playground.  Unlike in its Hungarian counterpart, the Warsaw Uprising Museum had very little “traditional” exhibitions to ground its overuse of multimedia.

Obviously, the city of Warsaw spent a lot of money on this museum.  As my first visit, I am unable to compare Sundays to other days of the week, and perhaps I am unfair in my assessment.  However, “In Your Pocket: Warsaw” seems to agree with me about the jostling by the crowds and the ease of making a wrong turn and thus finding yourself lost in history.  I couldn’t help but longing for my experience in Sarajevo when I visited the Bosnian History Museum.  I will forever be moved by experience looking at the exhibition on the Siege of Sarajevo.  The exhibition was one large room, showing historical documents and memorabilia from the years of hardship.  Visitors easily moved around the room through the display in chronological order, pausing over the artwork made by children or the re-creation of the living conditions at the time.  This museum shows that there is no need for technology to educate visitors.sarajevosarajevo2

(above) Bosnian History Museum: Sarajevo, Bosnia

All in all, I go to museums to learn.  I left the Warsaw Uprising Museum with the sound of bombs dropping still ringing in my ears, feeling like I had learned nothing.  My classmates, however, enjoyed their time and the multimedia-filled exhibitions.  It remains popular with tourists visiting Warsaw, so other people must feel differently.  At the end of it all, I couldn’t help but wondering… is this meant to be a museum or an attraction?

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