Institutionalizing the Revolution: Yugoslavia’s “Red” Museums
Updated: Jul 21, 2022
With the military success of the Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans during WWII and the subsequent Socialist Revolution he ushered in across Yugoslavia, efforts quickly focused within the post-war reconstruction of this new country on how to commemorate and institutionalize the memory of that revolution. Emulating the approach of the USSR (who had the “Central Museum of the Revolution” in Moscow which had opened in 1924), Yugoslavia quickly began to establish its own national network of “Museums of the Revolution”, sometimes referred to as “red museums”, in many of its most significant cities. In understanding the importance of such “Museums of the Revolution” in constructing a new society across Yugoslavia, it helps to envision such institutions as the conduits through which the “the continuity of the revolutionary traditions”, as well as the “the evolution of the Yugoslav proletariat”, were all perpetuated, as explained by Pintar & Ignjatović. Thus, these museum institutions became the means by which Yugoslavia would achieve its goal of cultivating a permanent revolution among the working class, so the events of WWII and the struggles of the Partisan fighters would not be forgotten.
However, it is important to recognize the conundrum Yugoslavia faced in its efforts of museumizing the idea of the “permanent revolution”... how do you relegate to the dusty confines of the museum that which is supposed to be ongoing, eternal and forever relevant? Furthermore, could these museums alone act as successful mechanisms to communicate and make relevant the spirit of the revolution to the next generation who never themselves experienced the war?
Yet, it must be noted that in their purpose, these institutions transcended being simply museums dedicated to the events of WWII or the memory of the revolution. As historian Kaja Širok notes, “by encouraging the creation of red museums, the communist regime reinforced its position and helped promote selected images of the past, at the expense of others”, and meanwhile, she further emphasizes that “histories and particular events deemed unsuitable or uncomfortable by the authorities were completely suppressed, even made taboo.” Yet, that is not to say that these museums and the legions of curators and historians who operated them viewed themselves as purveyors of “propaganda”, but rather, these staff saw their museums, as historian Joel Palhegyi explains, “[as] sites for critical thought and visitor engagement where the masses would organically discover both their national and their socialist cultural values”. Yet, Palhegyi goes on to explain that as hopeful as the staff might have been for visitors to engage in “critical thought”, only one narrative was ever available… “[these] professionals understood museums as crucial sites for altering the consciousness of their visitors in order to instill Marxist historical truths about the course of human history toward socialism.”
In this article, we will explore the eight major institutions from Yugoslavia that were created (or intended to be created) in honor of that former nation’s WWII uprising and subsequent revolution. Each museum will be examined from its foundation all the way up to its post-Yugoslav history and its current/contemporary status. Examining the condition of these museums, how they’ve changed (or not changed) over the decades since the 1990s, and how they fit into the contemporary politics of each of the former republics can reveal significant amounts about how current populations relate/related to these institutions and, by proxy, the history of Yugoslavia’s revolution and uprising itself.
1.) Sarajevo, BiH
Original name: Museum of the Revolution
Current name: History Museum of Bosnia & Hercegovina
Years of construction: 1959-1963
Architect(s): Boris Magaš, Edi Šmidihen and Radovan Horvat
Coordinates: 43°51'19.6"N, 18°24'03.8"E
When it was first founded in Sarajevo on November 28th, 1945 (just under three months after the official end of WWII), the Museum of the Revolution (which was originally called the Museum of the People’s Liberation Struggle) was located in the library of Sarajevo’s City Hall. It was situated at this location for several decades until the choice was made to construct a tailor-made facility to host its extensive historical collections. The plot selected for this new facility was the Marijin Dvor neighborhood of the city right across the street from the National Museum. The group that was awarded first prize in the design competition for the museum’s creation and construction was a team from the Zagreb School of Architecture: Boris Magaš, Edi Šmidihen and Radovan Horvat. Work subsequently began on the new Museum of the Revolution in 1959 and it was finally completed in July of 1963. In recognition of the architectural excellence of the design, the architects were awarded the National Award "Viktor Kovačić" in 1963 by the Association of Croatian Architects. The museum’s first permanent exhibition was opened on November 25th, 1966, which was designed by architect Đuka Kavurić (the same creator of the original exhibition at the Museum of the Revolution in Novi Sad) and curated by its director, Moni Finci.
The shape of the Museum of the Revolution which was designed by Magaš, Šmidihen and Horvat is dominated by its rectangular box entryway. This imposing white mass clad in white Brač limestone, designed in such a way that it appears to float over the ground, is kept suspended by nine concealed steel pillars, all surrounded underneath by curtains of glass-paned walls. Furthermore, the whole mass itself sits upon a platform base raised 2 meters off the ground, furthering the impressive spectacle of the structure. The complex then extends southwards through a series of glass corridors connecting a collection of exhibition spaces. Three sides of the museum form a courtyard within which were displayed various artworks and military armaments.
Upon entering the glass lobby, the most noticeable work of art was a famous rectangular stained glass window (roughly 4m wide). This colorful cube-patterned window was titled "Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People" and was created in 1966 by local Sarajevo artist Vojo Dimitrijević. An additional large-scale artwork created within the museum was a multi-level memorial mosaic mural titled "Bosna" by famous Serbian artist Mladen Srbinović. Located along the walls of the museum's main stairwell, the abstract and dynamic mosaic spans several levels and operates as a memorial to the history of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Famous Croatian artist Antun Augustinčić also contributed several significant works of art to the museum, including a version of his notable “Carrying the Wounded”, as well as a bronze version of his celebrated depiction of Josip Broz Tito. Other notable works in the museum included the painting "Juriš/Onslaught" by Ismet Mujezinović and the 1960 sculpture made of weapons titled "Zakletva Ustanika/Oath of the Uprisers" by Nandor Glid. As can be seen from the photos in this section, the museum’s permanent exhibit showcased significant amounts of artwork, artifacts, dioramas and other educational material related to WWII, the People’s Liberation Struggle and the socialist revolution in Yugoslavia.
During the Bosnian War and the Seige of Sarajevo, the Museum of the Revolution complex suffered significant damage. Many exhibits and artworks within the museum were damaged, including Dimitrijević’s massive stained glass window, whose tattered remains can still be seen on display in the museum’s lobby. In 1993, the complex changed its name to the “History Museum of Bosnia & Hercegovina”, altering the original scope and focus of the museum. While some exhibits still remain that are related to WWII and the Partisan fight against fascism, the most extensive permanent exhibit currently on display in the museum is dedicated to the Bosnian War and the Seige of Sarajevo. Since the end of the Yugoslav-era, the museum is no longer financed by the government, but is instead kept in operation exclusively by grants, donations and ticket sales. Yet, despite these issues with funding, the building was designated as a National Monument of Bosnia and Herzegovina in November of 2012. The current director of the museum is Elma Hashimbegović. The official Facebook page for the museum can be found at THIS link. In 2020, the podcast “Remembering Yugoslavia” featured a fascinating interview museum’s main curator, Elma Hodžić, which can be found at THIS link.
2.) Belgrade, Serbia
Original name: Museum of the Revolution
Current name: n/a
Year of construction: began 1978, never completed
Architect(s): Vjenceslav Richter
Coordinates: 44°49'03.7"N, 20°25'59.2"E
In the years after WWII, a number of “Museums of the Revolution” began to pop up across Yugoslavia. However, party leaders in Belgrade began to notice that the historical messaging between all of these institutions was fragmented and lacked the united narrative that politicians in Belgrade wished to see. As such, 1959, the Central Committee began to organize the creation of a Museum of the Revolution that would be one of the centerpieces of New Belgrade, while ensuring a clear and concise message about the “Brotherhood and Unity” of the People’s Liberation Struggle was effectively communicated. Even the official name of this museum project, “The Museum of the Revolution of the Peoples and Ethnicities of Yugoslavia”, worked towards communicating a sense of togetherness and unity. Even its being built in New Belgrade, rather than Old Belgrade, was symbolic, as New Belgrade was at that time being constructed as a “city for all Yugoslavia”. A design competition for this new museum was announced in 1961. After receiving 29 entries, the selection committee chose a design created by famous Zagreb architect and artist Vjenceslav Richter. However, until this new facility was built, Belgrade’s Museum of the Revolution was temporarily housed within the old Privileged Agrarian Bank building (today the Historical Museum of Serbia) at Marx & Engels Square (today called Nikola Pašić Square).
Richter’s design was composed of an elevated multi-level square pavilion exhibition space (set to be roughly 75m wide), with the design being characterized by its concept of a tent-like sculptural roof meant to rise 50m into the sky. The facade of the museum itself would be composed of raw panels of pre-stressed concrete. In describing his motivations behind the design of the museum, one source notes that Richter was quoted as saying that “is to safeguard the truth about us… the architecture of the Museum of the Revolution has to express this pervasive and great idea. Our idea and the idea of us. It is as much ours as it is new and authentic”. Originally, the site chosen for the museum was to be close to the confluence of the Danube and Sava, adjacent to where the Museum of Contemporary Art is located, as part of a collection of museum institutions. However, the plan for this museum district at the confluence was subsequently scrapped (largely due to the close proximity of the river) and a new site for the Museum of the Revolution was chosen nearby between the SIV (aka: the Palace of Serbia) and the Central Committee (CK) Building (today the Ušće Tower). For many years through the 1960s and early 1970s, the construction of the museum was postponed as a result of a lack of funding. It was not until 1977 that a funding package was passed by the parliament, with a planned opening date set for 1981 in order to mark the 40th anniversary of the uprising against fascism during WWII.