Becoming History and Contributing to History

An Analysis of Visitor Impression Books at the Bosnian Historical Museum in Sarajevo

Reviewed by Roma Patel
October 9, 2014

In this original paper, Amanda Lawnicki argues that the act of writing in a museum’s visitor impression book has two consequences: the visitor has effectively incorporated the museum into his or her own history, and has simultaneously contributed to the cultural history of the institution. In “Papa, should I tell you what I think of this exhibition, I would cry,” Lawnicki examines the books at the Bosnian Historical Museum’s exhibit on the siege of Sarajevo in order to elucidate the interaction between museums and visitors, understand Sarajevan memorial politics, and explore this exhibit’s dual identity as a museum and a memorial.

Analyzing comments from 2005 to 2013, the author categorizes the data into three sections: museum oriented, theme oriented, and graffiti comments. While museum oriented comments were more objective and focused on the physical space, theme oriented remarks centered on the visitor’s interpretation of the exhibit; graffiti refers to drawings, usually penciled in by children. To supplement the findings in the impression books, the author conducted interviews and emailed written questions.

After subcategorizing the comments, the author found that the largest percentage of remarks in all languages were in the catchall section of the thematic category, which included general comments that commended the quality of the museum. In English, specifically, one of the most common types of comments was a direct address to Sarajevans and Sarajevo. They not only highlighted the emotional impact of the exhibit but also foreign visitors’ positions as outsiders. Although this element of “otherness” is not necessarily negative, many comments indicated a lack of understanding of the political and cultural issues plaguing Bosnia.

In fact, the author later observes that the scarcity of politically charged comments coupled with the tendency to oversimplify the situation in Sarajevo demonstrated a general unawareness of the political and financial situation in Bosnia. Most attribute the current funding crisis, which is evident though the state of the museum itself, to corruption and Bosnia’s political structure, while others attribute it to ethnically divided politics. This sense of division pervades various aspects of Bosnia’s political and cultural climates, to the extent that institutions that present a unified version of history are seen as less valuable.

Lawnicki also notes the dualistic quality of the role of memorials in the preservation of memory. Many memory theorists argue that the creation of memorials instigate the forgetting process. In essence, memorials act as a sort of gateway to proceed into the future. Considering the dichotomous nature of both Bosnian politics and memory, the author concludes that the museum should be considered a memorial inside of a historical institution—an in-between only appropriate for this region.

View the full paper here!

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