Welcome to Sarajevo: transforming the Historical Museum in Venice

Welcome to Sarajevo: transforming the Historical Museum in Venice

The all-too-recent wounds from war and destruction have left the city of Sarajevo with several issues – political, but also urban and architectural ones. A new exhibition in Venice, entitled ’Sarajevo Now: The People’s Museum’ and launched at the 2016 Architecture Biennale, takes its cue from the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and how it ’epitomises this phenomenon,’ while trying to help the city to turn a corner from its traumatic past.

Conceived by Zurich-based architects Baier Bischofberger – headed by Florian Baier and Nina Baier-Bischofberger - and Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner from Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), the show, an official biennale collateral participation that was created in partnership with the museum, has a fairly straightforward premise.

’The Urban-Think Tank identified the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an "agent of change" for Sarajevo last year with their "Reactivate Sarajevo" initiative,’ explains Baier-Bischofberger. ’As with other cities in crisis where the group had pursued projects, such as Athens, they investigated Sarajevo to identify sites for intervention that would have a broader catalytic impact. The museum immediately identified itself as such a place.’

The building, inaugurated in 1963 and designed to embody the socialist dreams of its era and region, fell into serious disrepair and neglect post the war. Now, a series of actions endeavour to ’re-activate’ it, raising awareness and creating a proposal to transform it into a power of positive social change for the city. ’It has been kept open and operating by its staff – many volunteers – and the people of Sarajevo, despite an ongoing political conflict that meant the government refused to provide funds or support,’ continue the architects. ’Although the physical structure is deteriorating, as an institution it has become a vital civic space of dialogue, culture and education.’

The design presented in this show sees the building wrapped in a transparent vinyl skin that leaves the modernist building’s patina and damage unaltered, while creating a strong juxtaposition between old and new. ’The project attracted Florian and me as an exploration of how architecture can impact and improve the lives of the people of a city,’ says Baier-Bischofberger. ’In this case, how a cultural institution can be a force for change and reinvigoration in a city still suffering after a war. The project has the potential to be an example for many other cultural institutions worldwide that are going to need new strategies of reactivation after conflicts have ended.’

At the same time, this protection, suspended from scaffolding, seals off the site, sheltering it from heat and rain. This will buy the museum time, explains the team, allowing it to continue to be a public space and staging point for interventions.

Presenting the museum as a force for urban regeneration, the exhibition includes architectural work, photography and film, as well as a retrospective of the Urban-Think Tank’s research projects from all over the world. Having travelled to Zurich and Munich, the displays will remain in Venice until the end of the month, before it goes to Sarajevo. 

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