Archives for category: Yugoslavia

Museum of Yugoslav History /2

Throughout the most of the 20th century, in the Balkan peninsula, there was a country inspired by the desire to form a union of South Slavs. Yugoslavia, which was formed and disappeared several times, changed its name, borders, political and social systems, was marked by an exceptional diversity of ethnic groups, religions, cultures and customs existing in a comparatively small geographical area. Praised and disputed, built and undermined, it vanished from the geographical and political map of the world, in the late 20th century, but it legacy still exerts a strong influence on the lives of people in the region.

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Museum of Yugoslav History: How to archive a non-existing state?

Museum of Yugoslav History was founded in 1996 as a federal body by integrating the previously closed Josip Broz Tito Memorial Centre and Museum of the Revolution, only five years after the beginning of the wars for Yugoslav succession in 1991. Museum whose name features the name of a country that no longer exists and that was torn apart in the bloodiest war to take place in Europe during the second half of the twentieth century means always having to bear the blame for one thing and always having to justify another.

DH Museum_museumThe given name was purely the result of a political decision, motivated by the wish to put all Yugoslav legacy such as anti-fascism, revolution, liberation in the WWII, Partisans, under the carpet, not to preserve Yugoslav cultural heritage.

Many subjects relating to the inheritance and history of Yugoslavia have not yet been resolved and are awkward and controversial, light has still not been thrown on many topics related to the Yugoslav legacy, which remain “sensitive” and controversial, many wars are in people’s heads and some battles have not ended as of yet, while Yugoslavism in the public discourse is most frequently reduced to Yugo-nostalgia.

One cannot avoid making reference to the multifaceted emancipatory practice of the former Yugoslavia, to its anti-fascism and its indisputable successes in the modernisation and industrialisation of the country. One must not forget to draw attention to the bad times that were part of “the good old days”, too: to destroy the typical projections and stereotypes in order to prevent the creation of the myth of an ideal society, from which the former Yugoslavia was as far removed as any other country is. In order to be able to deal with the problems that follow conflicts, the shared past of the parties to the conflict must be critically examined. It is equally important that one develops an awareness of the positive as well as the negative inheritance and its influence on the current identities of the new states and communities in south-eastern Europe because history grows out of interpretation and constant re-interpretation.

Both in personal and in the collective memory we make a conscious (or unconscious) selection as to what we want to remember and what we want to forget. We often make these decisions purely to defend our right to our own past. Our memories are contingent upon context and surroundings. Memories change to be consistent with our respective current identities. Memories are subjective, they are constructs of the past from the current perspective, unless they were recorded immediately after the event; and even then different generations remember differently. We find ourselves on dangerous ground here: what should one do when there are discrepancies between the official view of the past and concrete personal experience? Even worse, what if there is no official discourse, if the exhibition on Yugoslavia is just the tip of the iceberg which floats because it has no foundations, no basis and there is no state or social consensus either?

We understood that the number of histories of Yugoslavia equalled the number of people who lived in the country and that the personal memories of these millions of witnesses would never and could never be identical, either to one another, or to what would be shown in the museum. The dissonance of memories is evident, which is why polyvocality is the only right direction, along with establishing a dialogue and presenting different interpretations of the past. It is clear that personal memories, only when incorporated into a defined historical framework, based on relevant scientific research, can jointly paint a picture of Yugoslavia.


The public life of Tito’s gifts in museums began with the opening of the May 25 Museum in 1962. Most of the exhibits were relay batons and scale models, while the most valuable items remained within the residential premises, accessibly only to selected guests of the president of the republic, who clearly represented the identity and the power of the community. Following the death of Josip Broz, all the buildings were opened to the public and turned into a museum of gifts and awards, with the aim of presenting the most representative and valuable items from all the collections, with particular emphasis on the prestige and origin of the presenter of the gift. Thus Tito’s private collection became an instrument for shaping and presenting identify, just as, following the French Revolution, the Louvre became a public museum and was thus transformed from being a luxury to a national treasure, a source of patriotic pride and an illustration of the French Republic, showing its national treasure to everyone. The establishment of the Josip Broz Tito Memorial Centre, an institution charged with preserving and nurturing the memory of Josip Broz, gave the collection a new meaning, one which is precisely the point of collection – making the collector immortal. The collection has remained intact to the present day, within the newly established Museum of Yugoslav History. This becomes extremely important in the light of modern museological practice in which the main aim is no longer the item itself, but the interpretation of the layers of meanings of museological items.

In view of that fact, Museum initiated public discussions searching for a new understanding of the existing museum artefacts and the time that produced them. As the majority of the objects were gifts which Josip Broz Tito received over the past four decades, the new museum concept and exhibition practice reversed the perspective and raised questions not only about the one who was receiving the presents, but also about those who were giving them and finally about the politics that encouraged the practice of giving presents to the leader and a rethinking of the historical role of the state he represented. This new light was put on the people and society, which for three and a half decades preserved the practice of gift-giving to the president.

Today, the Museum of Yugoslav History, as the successor of the previous museum institutions containing the same objects and artefacts, has introduced new perspectives in

exhibiting practices by opening its space for the numerous international and domestic artistic performances and exhibitions. Over the past few years, the museum had organized several highly visited exhibitions contextualizing the existing objects and promoting the new ones, thus lightening hidden spots of Yugoslav and Serbian history until the present day.

Museum exhibits can play roles given to them by objective observers from outside the museum, many of them not people with a museum background but directors, writers, scientists who will discuss the items, their importance and value, as well as their own subjective attitude to and relationship with Josip Broz and his time, thus creating the material for a new sociological and culturological analysis of the museum items.

Film director Goran Marković speaks of the importance of authentic items when making films, because the quality of the design and properties affects the quality of acting. He recalls that, in 1992, the Josip Broz Tito Memorial Centre allowed him to use the Marshal’s insignia for his film Tito and Me.

With his novel Stalin’s Sabre, Ivan Ivanji, writer, diplomat and Tito’s German interpreter, raised a storm in the media in 2008 and once again raised the issue of the fate of the holdings, of the theft and disappearance of valuable items from the Museum of Yugoslav History. “The most famous exhibit is the sabre presented to Tito by Stalin personally in 1944 for his services in the struggle against Fascism. Its hilt is decorated with exceptionally large diamonds, rubies and other precious stones,” writes Ivan Ivanji in his novel in admiration of the sabre while, at the exhibition, he speaks of his disappointment when he laid eyes on the authentic item.

In August 2003, three scholarship holders from a NATO laboratory went on trial for the theft of 105 grams of Moon rock. They had planned to sell it for between one and five thousand dollars a gram. However the court found that the Moon rocks were of far greater value, because it was calculated that the cost of acquiring each gram was 50,800 dollars. The inability to provide adequate security for this exhibit is the only reason the Museum of Yugoslav History was unable to fulfil the request of Goran Pavičić, lecturer at the Planetarium, to display, at the Kalemegdan Observatory on Museum Night 2009, the samples of the Moon’s surface presented to Josip “Tito” Broz as a gift by the Apollo 11 crew and US President Richard Nixon.


Museum of Yugoslav History /1

Locksmith, ambitious party activist, the leader of the largest resistance movement in Europe, avid hunter, a dictator, a lover of tobacco and riding, the undisputed leader of the Non-aligned Movement, photographer and pianist, a visionary of Yugoslav road to communism, hedonist, the executioner of political opponents, the greatest humanist and fighter for the freedom of oppressed and small nations. These are just some of the different views on Josip Broz Tito, the creator and president for life of the Second Yugoslavia. Obviously, his career wasn’t built on just one talent, just one strategy. A remarkable talent for creating what would nowadays be called public image, was one of his best.

Portrait of Comrade Tito painted on a leaf (Museum of Yugoslav History, Belgrade).

Although by 1945 Tito was celebrated as leader of Europe’s largest ever guerilla campaign, his true ascent as a world statesman comes after the conflict with Stalin, especially following the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Of all the communist statesmen, he was the first and the only to become a star in the eyes of the Western public. At the beginning of the 1950s, his portrait as the handsome warrior appeared on the cover of America’s leading magazines. No communist leader met with more American presidents, from Eisenhower on. At the same time, Tito remained on excellent terms with every Soviet leader after Stalin. World leaders would even consult him on issues on international politics. He was the best representative of the born-again summit diplomacy, and since he became President of Yugoslavia in 1953, visited seventy countries, many of them several times, heading as many as 160 state delegations (38 on the visits to socialist countries, 35 to the West and 87 to third-world countries). In his spare time he loved to socialize with members of the international jet set, as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and many others.

At home, his personality cult was one of the defining features of the regime. Even though he was seen by many as a dictator, his wide popularity was not questioned and he was very successful in firing the enthusiasm of his subjects.

In the last years of Tito’s life, real political power in Yugoslavia had slipped from his grasp to be divided among the oligarchies of the Yugoslav republics. On the contrary, his star in foreign policy was shining until the end. Even as an 87 year old man, he was able to defend the principles of Non-aligned Movement in Havana. His funeral (1980) drew many world statesmen – the 211 delegations from 128 different countries and it was the largest state funeral in history.

Josip Broz Tito is still a popular and controversial figure today, over thirty years since his death. Many people still consider him the most prominent political figure in the former Yugoslavia. They are not rare either those who consider him responsible for everything bad that happened in the region since World War II.

A selection of photos from the collections of the Museum of Yugoslav History:

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