Bojana Borić Brešković, Director of the National Museum in Belgrade, says that since the reconstruction of the National Museum building in Belgrade was completed on 31 March, she did not doubt for a second that it would be finished as planned by 28 June, for the Vidovdan religious holiday.
To our remark that it is easy for her to say that, now that everything is happily finished according to plan: she says that we are wrong: “All of us at the National Museum wished so much for this waiting to end that this ardent desire motivated us to work over our limits, and because of this, the result could only be positive”.
The Government of the Republic of Serbia has marked the first year of its mandate by opening the permanent exhibition of the National Museum. With free admission from the opening ceremony until 8 July, the National Museum was visited by 30,000 Belgraders, residents of other Serbian cities and tourists – all those who wanted to see what they could not have seen for the past fifteen years. They queued for hours, at night, and in the rain. It was proof of the public outrage over the fact that Serbia has been waiting 15 years for a building with over 400,000 pieces from prehistory to the 1950s to be made into a facility with suitable conditions for their keeping, exhibiting and studying.
Although we all say “The National Museum is open,” the building of the National Museum was accessible to visitors for most of the 15 years of reconstruction.
I am glad that you phrased it like this. Because I would like to point out that the National Museum was open, it just did not have a permanent exhibition, which we removed to protect it from harmful influences of unsuitable temperature, humidity and light.
Over the years, we have striven to make our collections available in many ways, whether in the building itself as long as it was possible until the construction works began, or in the premises of the institutions with which we established cooperation.
For example, in the Gallery of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) and in the Gallery of the Central Military Club. In SANU we showed the complete works by Edgar Degas in our collection, then we co-organized the exhibition of the art of Kosovo and Metohija – up to 70 per cent of the exhibits were from our museum. Personally, I consider this an extraordinary and important exhibition.
When you mention cooperation, maybe we can continue the story in that direction. Apart from institutions in Serbia, you have exhibited parts of your collections abroad. For example, at the beginning of the reconstruction, you participated in an exhibition of Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York …
… or, just before the opening, in Aquileia at the Palace of Meizlik in the great exhibition “Treasure and Emperors – the splendour of Roman Serbia,” we showed 61 exhibits from our collection. It was an exceptional joint effort initiated by the agreement of the Ministry of Culture and Information of Serbia, the Aquileia Foundation and the National Museum.
The exhibition lasted from 10 March to 3 June, because we had to return the pieces to Belgrade before the re-opening of the Museum. It is an exhibition of ancient heritage from our territory with a special emphasis on the late antique period. The exhibition generated great interest in Italy, and the president of the Aquileia Foundation, Mr Antonio Zanardi Landi, former Ambassador of Italy to Serbia, was delighted with our cooperation, which he expressed with a note of thanks. We are proud of the excellent catalogue published in Italian and English. Since the exhibitions are not permanent, what remains after them are the publications.
The museum was founded in 1844 by merging several others. We are the guardians of the archaeological heritage of this territory, our medieval Serbian art, then Yugoslav art of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and a collection of foreign art from the 14th to the 20th centuries
The collection of the National Museum is, simply speaking, comprehensive in both historical and artistic terms. How would you present it?
The museum was founded in 1844 by merging several others. We are the guardians of the archaeological heritage of this territory, our medieval Serbian art, then Yugoslav art of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and a collection of foreign art from the 14th to the 20th century. The National Museum can, therefore, be called an archaeological and artistic museum, it possesses an invaluable cultural heritage, plus it is a central institution in relation to all other museums in the country.
The exhibits of the new permanent exhibition are displayed over about 5,000 square metres, on three levels. Carefully selected, the exhibits of the new permanent collection testify the past and the art of our territory and Europe’s. In the atrium, there are archaeological collections that cover a chronological range from the Palaeo-lithic to the ancient Greek and Roman culture and art. Particular emphasis is on Lepenski Vir and the significance of the Roman provinces in the structure of the Roman Empire. On the first floor, through ten thematic units, is art from the Middle Ages to the First Serbian Uprising: jewellery, icons, copies of frescoes, items of applied art … On the second floor, there are three parts: the works of foreign artists and the works of Yugoslav painters of the 20th century, and the third part is the Great Hall, a space that we will use in future for thematic exhibitions.
You mentioned Yugoslav art, this means that you are the keepers of the art of a state that does not exist?
At the time of SFRY, the National Museum was an institution in which cultural values from all over the country were acquired – after all, at the entrance we have sculptures of Ivan Mestrović, a great sculptor of Croatian origin. We do not want to forget that period of our history, even if it is not to someone‘s liking.
What would you select from the Foreign Art Collection?
In a situation where you have 1,100 paintings and sculptures from the 14th to 20th century, it is not easy to choose a few. The core of the collection is the gift of the Slovak painter Bertold Lipaj from 1891 with 70 works by Italian artists. The biggest and the most important segment of the collection are sets of Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, Russian and Austrian art. I can randomly list some of the painters: Giovanni di Paolo, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Guardi, Atelier Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens, works of Thorop, Van Gogh and Mondrian are the pearls of Dutch art, then the inevitable French artists Corot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Moreau, Vuillard, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Archipenko, Chagall … We also keep a collection of drawings and graphics of foreign authors from the 14th to the 21st century, with the majority of works from French, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian schools. We have works by Dürer, Rembrandt, Corot, Edgar Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Redon, Matisse, Lissitzky. I would also mention a collection of Japanese wood prints from the 18th and 19th centuries from the cycle “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”, which may not be well-known to the public…
Carefully selected, the exhibits of the new permanent collection testify the past and the art of our territory and Europe’s
Who has supported the reconstruction financially?
The National Museum received the biggest support, first the initial and then final, from then Prime Minister and now President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, who in his inaugural speech mentioned two cultural institutions, the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, among Serbia‘s main tasks. With the help of the Government, the Ministry of Culture and the City of Belgrade, we have completed the reconstruction of the building and set up a new permanent exhibition in the agreed time – on the day of marking the anniversary of the present Government of Serbia. Since our building is a cultural monument and we are located in Knez Mihailova street, which is also under the protection of the state, we have had to respect all the demands that such a building and place require. I need to emphasize that our great wish has come true: we have rehabilitated the beautiful staircase at the entrance to the building from Republic Square and now we use it as an exit. Also, let me remind you that this building was built for a bank, so we have turned the former Counter hall, which is an area that has not been used up until now, into the Multicultural Hall, and we have protected its pillars and turned them into a museum exhibit to remind everyone of its exceptional architectural style. We have also used two vaults of the former bank and for the first time presented the Numismatic Collection in them.
The museum is open – now what?
In the past year, three museums opened in Serbia after their buildings were renovated and new museum exhibitions set up: the Gallery of Matica Srpska in Novi Sad, and in Belgrade the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum. Does the opening of the museum after the adaptation mean that the job is done? Absolutely not! It is the beginning of a new phase, its new definition. We defined the basics of the permanent exhibition, which means that it is not set in stone but flexible, and now we need to attract the audience. How? With various approaches that will make the Museum vibrant and attractive. It is the work of the curators and all of us, the work that is most important to the museum and invisible to the public. Our programmes will be adapted for all ages. We expect to organize an exhibition of the National Museum of China at the end of this year or early next year, and the initiative of the Italian ambassador for a joint exhibition at the beginning of next year. Next year, I hope, we will also have a joint exhibition with the Archaeological Museum in Skopje and the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia. Our colleagues from Skopje initiated this project on the occasion of a centenary of archaeological excavations in Trebenište that are being carried out in our three countries. So the answer to your question is: We are just starting!
By: Sonja Ćirić, Photo: National Museum Of Belgrade & Zoran Petrović