Teaching War's Terrible Touch
By Robert Schroeder
When the Bosnian War ended in 1995, two percent of the Bosnia and Herzegovina's population was dead and 50 percent of the population was displaced.
No amount of reconciliation could change those statistics, nor Bosnia and Herzegovina's sharp ethnic and religious divisions.
The process of healing, however, has defined the nascent country's history. A decade and a half later, as Bosnia and Herzegovina still grapples with significant political, ethnic and religious divisions, National Louis University's Patrick Roberts, Ph.D., associate professor in the National College of Education, is providing the country's museums with resources to further their education outreach.
On July 6, Roberts facilitated a transnational digital video conference from the U.S. State Department with the Executive Director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies to the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo with Bosnian and Herzgev museum educators, curators and professors of education in attendance, with the hopes of sharing best practices and building a systematic approach to museum education.
"If you think about museums as places where stories are told, in a place like Bosnia and Herzegovina it's difficult to make decisions about how the story gets told," Roberts said. "There's a very fractious or in some sense no coherent national identity, and in that sense, museum education becomes very much a political enterprise."
In 2010, Roberts spent a year living in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina's capitol city, as a Fulbright Scholar conducting research in how museums contribute to civic pluralism, democracy, peace and reconciliation. His research revealed that despite severe lack of resources and political challenges, museums in Bosnia and Herzegovina are beginning to lead national discussions on what it means to be Bosnian or Herzeg. Museum educators and curators are working with professors at the University of Sarajevo to create opportunities for civic engagement exploring the question of what a democracy truly means and defining a people's civic responsibilities.
Apart from financial and political difficulties, museums in a war-torn country like Bosnia and Herzegovina face the challenge of redefining their own identity. In socialist Yugoslavia, museums were commissioned to inculcate citizens from vastly different ethnic backgrounds into one national identity. In the war fought largely over ethnic and religious tensions, museums were often symbolic targets for bombs and shells from any of the factions fighting for territory. As the country's museums seek a new identity, Roberts points to South Africa as an example where museums engaged in fostering reconciliation following the end of the apartheid era.
As the Arab Spring melts into summer, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya all are on the path to forging new state identities, two as democracies and Libya as an autocracy hanging in the balance. Museums in these countries, silenced in past years, now have to decide how to use their own voice.
"We think of museums as a place where artifacts are displayed and things are conserved, but museums are also spaces where people come together," Roberts said. "In the museum studies world, there is a lot of discussion among scholars of the public value of museums, what they can and must contribute to healthy democracies."
Roberts hopes to make the July conference an annual event, continuing to introduce outside resources to museum educators and fostering greater ties between museums and other educational institutions in the country. The path ahead is uncharted territory for museum educators, a path to grow wider as the infusion of democracy settles in Egypt and Tunisia.