Friday, December 31, 2010

Bad day at the National Museum of Serbia on Republic Square in Belgrade

National Museum, Republic Square
Belgrade, Serbia

 Republic Square sits in the heart of Belgrade, and many say it is the heart of Belgrade. It features the famous statue of Prince Michael and is bordered by the National Theatre and the National Museum. In 1997 it was the site of the anti-Milosevic rallies.

A visit to the National Museum has been on my wish list ever since I arrived in Belgrade, and Draga kindly planned it into to our busy schedule. “It’s enormous,” she says excitedly, as I cast one more look upon the sizable scrotum of Prince Michael’s horse. “I visited this museum at least ten times in my youth. If you want to understand my people, you should see this museum.”

Caryatides by Ivan Mestrovic
at the National Museum of Serbia
 The entrance on the square is blocked by scaffolds but the one on Ulica Vase Carapica is open. We enter and ascend a wide staircase flanked by two imposing rows of Caryatides, created by Ivan Mestrovic, who also made Victor, the signature statue at Kalemegdan and symbol of Belgrade.

A tired man with glasses like jam jar bottoms and wild curly hair sits in the ticket booth. The photo on his ID proves that he was young once. He smiles wryly as Draga orders two tickets, and informs us that the National Museum is closed for tourists and has been closed for a decade, ever since the NATO bombing of 1999. The collection is in storage in the basement. “For students of history of art we keep a special program, with the highlights on display. Not many of those come here though,” says the man.

There are plans to reinstate the museum but the board needs 100 million Euro to accomplish that, the man insists. Somehow that seems a bit excessive to me, but I recognize the grim reality of a culture that does have money to build enormous shopping malls and a cathedral devoted to the national hero Saint Sava, but not to preserve the memories of a troubled past.

“A wounded man will try to become better first,” explains the man, “Only when he’s back on his feet, he might want to know what struck him down.”

He’s been here his whole adult life and has seen it all; the masses mourning after Tito’s death, Milosevic working the crowds when they still believed him, and their protests when they did no more. He held on to his ticket counter when the bombs destroyed the buildings around him and when the people outside began to celebrate peace. He sat there when men crated the relics that told it all and carried them down to the basement.

We say goodbye to the man, and sink to street level between the parades of Caryatides. They stand there as proud as they were when they were first installed and care not that they uphold an empty vault, or even supply the last refuge of a man who hold a nation’s history behind his tear filled eyes.

Empty pedestals at the  National Museum of Serbia

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