Institutionalizing the Revolution: Yugoslavia’s “Red” Museums

Updated: Jul 21

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

A vintage photo of what was originally the Museum of the Revolution in Sarajevo. Credit: muzej.ba

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.

A vintage photo of what was originally the Museum of the Revolution in Sarajevo. Credit: Boris Magaš Archive
A vintage photo of the sculpture "Oath of the Uprisers" by Glid in the Museum of the Revolution in Sarajevo. Credit: muzej.ba
A vintage photo of the painting "Onslaught" by Mujezinović in the Museum of the Revolution in Sarajevo. Credit: muzej.ba
A vintage photo of the interior of what was originally the Museum of the Revolution in Sarajevo. Credit: muzej.ba

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.

A photo of the damaged stained glass window inside the museum by Dimitrijević. Credit: Personal photo
One of the sections of the mosaic wall in the stairwell of the museum by Srbinović. Credit: Personal photo

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.

A photo of the Tito statue by Augustinčić in the courtyard of the museum. Credit: Personal photo
A contemporary photo of the Museum of History of BiH. Credit: Julian Nyča

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

A model of what was to be the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade by Vjenceslav Richter. Credit: Vjenceslav Richter archive

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).

An image of the architectural schematics of the Museum of the Revolution by Richter. Credit: Vjenseslav Richter archive
A view of the model that was meant to be the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade. Credit: Vjenceslav Richter

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.

An aerial view of the ruins of the unfinished Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade. Credit: GoogleMaps
A recent photo of the ruins of the unfinished Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade. Credit: Personal photo

Construction on the project began in 1978, but progress was slow and funding was inconsistent, particularly as economic hardship struck Yugoslavia during the 1980s. The 1981 deadline passed with only the basement level of the structure completed and all construction had ceased with funds drying up. By the end of the 1980s, efforts on the project were all but abandoned and as Yugoslavia began to be dismantled through the subsequent years, the unfinished construction site of the Museum of the Revolution fell into a state of ruin and dereliction. Its dark cavernous basement turned into a site of urban decay that sat forgotten within the fabric of New Belgrade, attracting homeless individuals and vagrants. From a distance, the only noticeable sign of the structure is a series of steel rod bundles that were meant to operate as supporting columns for the above-ground structure. In a 2013 paper, architectural historian Vladimir Kulić reminisces on this scene: “The tall columns supporting nothing, still discernible behind the surrounding dense greenery, vividly speak of the declining status of the federation, which for more than 20 years could not bring itself to finish a project of such symbolic significance for its own ideological system.” As far as the fate of the Museum of the Revolution that operated within the old Privileged Agrarian Bank building, it ceased operation in the mid-1990s and, in 1996, its collection and archives were merged with the institution that is now known as the Museum of Yugoslavia at Dedinje.


Since the late 2010s, efforts have been underway to demolish the ruins of the Museum of the Revolution and replace it with a Philharmonic Center (set to cost around 30 million euros). In 2017, a design competition for this concert hall was won by an ambitious proposal put forward by architects Dragan Marčetić and Milan Maksimović [images of the proposal can be seen at THIS link]. However, as of spring 2022, no effort towards this project is yet to be started.

 

3.) Zagreb, Croatia

A photo of the building that was formerly the Museum of the Revolution in Zagreb. Credit: Tomislav Miletic

Original name: House of Fine Arts of King Peter I the Great Liberator

Current name: Croatian Society of Fine Artists

Years of construction: 1933-1938

Architect(s): Ivan Meštrović (with Ladislav Horvat and Harold Bilinić)

Coordinates: 45°48'34.9"N, 15°59'13.9"E


The facility that came to house the Museum of the Revolution in Zagreb has a long and unique history. The story starts in the early 1930s, when the Croatian Art Society “Strossmayer” in Zagreb was exploring ideas for creating a new exhibition space for the city. The commission for building this site was taken up by famous Croatian artist Ivan Meštrović, who is often credited as being among the most important artists in Croatian history. The site selected for the facility was the “Square of King Peter” (today the “Square of the Victims of Fascism”), while the project began in 1933 and was finished about five years later in 1938, with its first exhibition titled “A Half Century of Croatian Art” and the pavilion receiving its dedication from none other than Archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac. Meštrović’s exhibition pavilion is typified by its circular rotunda architecture surrounded by square columns, designed in a style that is described as “stripped classicism” (a style characterized by its clean lines and absence of ornamentation). The interior of the rotunda features an exquisite circular ceiling, created by architect Zvonimir Kavurić, that is composed of thousands of small round glass tiles that allow natural light to penetrate into the gallery. The official name given the gallery was the “House of Fine Arts of King Peter I the Great Liberator”. However, the gallery only operated for three years before it was struck by major changes.


A vintage image of the construction of the Meštrović pavilion in Zagreb.
A 1940s view of the Meštrović pavilion when it had its two minarets during WWII.

With the start of WWII in 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was invaded and dismantled by Axis powers, which led to the creation of the Axis-aligned puppet-government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), with Zagreb chosen as its capital. The NDH leader Ante Pavelić subsequently made the choice to have the House of Fine Arts converted into a mosque. These changes, which were headed by architect Zvonimir Požgaj, included the addition of three massive 45m tall minarets surrounding the pavilion. As the minarets reached completion in January of 1943, the Muslim call to prayer echoed out across Zagreb for the very first time, according to some sources. The mosque within the square (which was named “Kulina Ban Square” during the war) was officially opened in August of 1944. However, after WWII ended the following year, the new Yugoslav communist government in Zagreb only allowed the mosque to operate for a few more years before it was evicted in 1949, at which point the minarets were torn down. In explaining the demolition, the VP of the City People’s Committee, Mika Špiljak, stated that the minarets were “erected by executioner Pavelić to incite hatred… [and] fratricidal war between our peoples”.

Some 1938 photos of the Meštrović pavilion in Zagreb just before WWII. Credit: Griesbach i Knaus
Three Yugoslav-era views of the interior of the Museum of the Revolution in Zagreb.
A vintage postcard view of the Museum of the Revolution in Zagreb.

After the demolition of the minarets, efforts began towards the creation of a new institution with the old House of Fine Arts that was originally known as the “Museum of the Croatian People's Revolution”. The job of retrofitting the pavilion into this new museum was undertaken by famous Croatian architect Vjenceslav Richter. While the exterior of the pavilion was left largely the same, Richter added a staircase leading from the ground floor of the main rotunda up to the mezzanine and installing a corrugated facade around the rotunda’s interior to lessen the circular shape of the space, while also covering up the glass tile dome screen created by Kavurić. The completed renovation was unveiled on April 15th, 1955. In 1962, the name of the institution was changed to a more simple “Museum of the Revolution”. During its operation, this institution housed over 100,000 objects related to the People’s Liberation Struggle in Croatia and hosted tens of thousands of visitors every year. The museum was unique in that it hosted a collection dedicated to a war that the building itself played its own distinct role in.

A contemporary recent view of the interior of the Dom HDLU in Zagreb. Credit: Andrej Sepcic

During the 1980s, even before the end of the Yugoslav-era, there were calls for the modifications made to the pavilion over the last 40 years to be removed and efforts be made to bring the complex back to its pre-WWII appearance. Then, in 1991, as Croatia separated itself from Yugoslavia, the Museum of the Revolution ceased its operations. The pavilion was handed over to the Croatian Society of Fine Artists (HDLU), who proceeded to initiate a renovation to bring it closer to its original 1938 design that Meštrović intended. These renovations were completed in 2003, at which point the pavilion opened to the public as the House of the Croatian Society of Fine Artists (Dom HDLU), however, despite the fact that the building has not been a mosque since the mid-1940s, many in Zagreb still colloquially refer to the facility as “džamija“ (“the mosque”). The official website for the gallery can be found at THIS link.

 

4.) Rijeka, Croatia

A view of the institution that was formerly the Museum of the Revolution in Rijeka. Credit: Velid Đekić

Original name: Museum of the People's Revolution of Rijeka

Current name: The City Museum of Rijeka

Years of construction: 1972-1976

Architect(s): Neven Šegvić

Coordinates: 45°19'47.8"N, 14°26'31.6"E


The origins of the Museum of the Revolution in Rijeka, Croatia go back to May of 1961, at which point the City People’s Committee of Rijeka laid the groundwork for the creation of this institution. However, the initiation of the museum itself was put forward by notable Rijeka art historian Boško Končar, who served as its first and most famous director. Originally, the museum was located within a 19th-century villa in the city’s neighborhood of Sušak, at 12 Petra Zrinskog Street (in what was originally the home of Irish Count Laval Nugent von Westmeath and what exists today as a music school). However, this was only a temporary residence for the museum, as efforts were already underway during the 1960s to establish a more expansive dedicated space for the institution.

Some vintage Yugoslav-era photos of the interior and exterior of the Museum of the Revolution in Rijeka.

After the conclusion of a design competition in 1964 aimed at choosing a design for the new Museum of the Revolution, the proposal put forward by notable Zagreb architect Neven Šegvić was chosen as the winner. Meanwhile, the location in Rijeka chosen for this project was “Museum Square” (today named “Square Riccarda Zanelle”), at a site situated at the northwest corner of the garden courtyard of the former Austro-Hungarian Governor’s Palace in Rijeka (created in 1897 by architect Alajos Hauszmann and today exists as the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Coast). Work on the Museum of the Revolution subsequently began in 1972 (seven years after approval by the Municipal Assembly in 1965) and was finished roughly four years later in 1976, when it was ceremoniously unveiled on November 26th. Sources relate that this building was the first post-WWII project in the city created exclusively for civic cultural purposes, as well as being the last architectural project of Neven Šegvić’s career, for which he went on to win the federal Borba Award for excellence in architecture in 1977, the highest professional recognition bestowed in Yugoslavia.


The series of dramatic over-hanging eaves, reminiscent of offset stacked boxes, is the most prominent feature of the Museum of the Revolution created by Neven Šegvić, with this facade fashioned in flat white plaster and a curious lone box window in the upper left-hand corner extending out from its front face looking over the square. Some sources relate that in designing the museum, Šegvić was inspired by the old Whitney Museum of American Art building in New York City, created by Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer. As one 2018 paper describes, the museum and the space around it is an “overlap of various architectural styles, with historicism, secessionism, and modern all being recognized, the balance of which the author tries to preserve and supplement with his measured realization… [and] in the author’s restrained design, clear geometric forms are communicated, cube, lines and surfaces, without decorations or strong expressive elements.” Meanwhile, the pure white facade and geometric character carried over into Šegvić’s interior, with the entire mass pierced with an atrium and balconies looking down through its core.