The version of following paper is as it should have been read at the SAA meetings, prepared for a 15-minute presentation. A more detailed version will be forthcoming.



Alvaro Higueras

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Museums in Distress: Building National Museums in Eritrea and Kosovo.


In this paper I discuss the development of national museums in Eritrea and Kosovo. National museums embodying the history and art of a nation are important vehicles in building or reconstructing national identity. In the two cases explored here they are essential to reconstruct the foundations for civil society. In extreme cases, it is known, they may be a form to sponsor nationalism. 

The role of museums in society has been of great interest to anthropologists in recent decades, finding a major forum in the World Archaeological Congress. In these meetings, archaeologists evaluated how histories were interpreted drawing on prehistoric events, and how they compare to the state of archaeological research. Countries from two “young” continents were the focus of research then: Africa and Latin America. There are today a set of new countries that face the same problems that African and Latin American countries faced forty and 175 years ago, respectively. 

In this paper, I will explore the role of archaeology and its public interface in the process of building national museums, and that is how this paper is pertinent to the SAA meetings. However, I propose that archaeology should have a secondary role in the cases described here, in order to emphasize other historical events essential to the first decades of a new country. There are many possible paths in building or reorganizing a national museum; and studying the reasons that underlie the planning and creation of exhibits in museums enlightens us with the social reality and social constructs a government sets for a country. Granted, sometimes governments will not direct those aspects of cultural life, often not fully grasping the public role of museums. Decisions on the contents and dynamics of the museum will be in the hands of staff. 

I will describe these paths in Eritrea and Kosovo and compare them to other possible outcomes that could arise from an “outsider’ point of view. Indeed, I had the chance to have the role of close observer in Eritrea and to be involved in the decision making process in the case of the Museum of Kosovo. Decisions that I saw as limiting to the breath of a museum were not seen as such by the local parties. It is in these processes that lay the most interesting contexts for our understanding of the messages that the local museum experts believe they should provide the public.

I suggest here that archaeology should not have a central or primary role in such processes. In fact, I argue that archaeology and its main interest in prehistoric periods (i.e., historical and industrial archaeology are not a concern since they are not developed yet in these cases) should be set-aside in the initial processes of building these museums. It is extremely difficult to have a national museum with interests that should span from natural history to numismatics reflect those broad interests with directors that are mainly archaeologists. These museums should be organized with the intention to be diverse and give room to historical elements that can be more productive in building national identity in a short and medium term. In other cases, prehistory have been essential in building national identity after major political changes (e.g., Mexico). Such is not the case, from my point of view, in Eritrea and Kosovo. Other aspects of their history can be better exploited in the task of building the nation’s identity. 

Eritrea and Kosovo have similar challenges in the development of the national museum. They present, however, very different political situations. Eritrea obtained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year civil war. In contrast, Kosovo obtained a “de facto” –but temporary-- independence from Yugoslavia in 1999 after a ten-year period of pacific resistance, a short-lived small-scale local armed conflict, and a drastic NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Eritrea has started creating the national institutions that normally follow a process of independence. On the other hand, Kosovo, now being administered by the United Nations, is already trying to change the character of its cultural institutions. Traditionally, these institutions functioned within an autonomous (from Belgrade) framework. They were subjected to close control from Belgrade in the last ten years, and are now aiming at functioning independently disregarding the final outcome of its political status –which is now more that ever in very much doubt.

In this historical context of newly independent countries the task of organizing a national museum is not a simple task. In the case of Eritrea and Kosovo historical elements of the recent past (e.g., like the last half century) might provide stronger arguments for the justification of a nation. The tasks in the museums of Eritrea and Kosovo are geared towards starting the national museums with the prehistoric exhibits. This may be an unproductive task. This path has been taken in other countries: the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, is being gradually reopened with prehistory and medieval times exhibited in the first rooms. Independent since 1995, after three-year civil war, the national museum has adopted a traditional view in its presentation. All the political events of the last decade and the 20th century, in which Sarajevo and Bosnia are central key players (i.e., its relationship to World War I) are still to be presented in the museum. (In the countries of the ex-Yugoslavia it was the Museum of the Revolution that concentrated in contemporary history and the creation of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Their purpose was clear: to consolidate an artificial amalgam of peoples. These museums have been closed and have merged with the national museums.) . 

This traditional option used in the reopened Bosnian National Museum in Sarajevo defeats the needs of a newly independent country. The new country, formerly part of Yugoslavia and very often dominated by the latter, needs a new set of historical principles that could stem from the exhibits of the national museum. Is it too soon to present the events of the last decades? Is it worthwhile to present those events to tackle the problems of ethnic tolerance and coexistence in the new Bosnia? Is it productive to present to the public the dangers of ethnic cleansing? In sum, would the national museum help in creating a stronger, tolerant, and more cohesive community by displaying the above themes? 

I believe the answer is yes. The traditional option of starting the new exhibit with prehistory is a non-committed option for the construction of civil society in the new country. On the other hand, exhibits that deal with recent history can certainly be subject to historical manipulation to justify actions and outcomes for the new country. But archaeological exhibits are known to be subject to that manipulation as well. Two examples: in their plans of preparing the new exhibits, staff and intellectuals in Kosovo insist on underlining the Illyrian phenomenon, a historical topic that relates to the concept of a “Greater Albania” and supports the “immemorial” settlement of the area by Albanian populations. In Eritrea, the staff of the museum insists on underlining the theme of Eritrea as the legendary land of Punt (a land also suggested to be in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia). 

And yet, despite the rich recent history of the dramatic 30-year Eritrean struggle for the independence from Ethiopia, and the complexity of the recent events in Kosovo that will define its near future (e.g., for instance, how to handle the fact that the de-facto independence was achieved by foreign troops), prehistory seems to be the topic of choice for starting again the cultural life in the national museums of Kosovo and Eritrea. 

I suggest that contemporary history would be a much more productive field for the new nations. In Eritrea this topic would include the graphic and literary artistic creations of soldiers that fought and supported the struggle in the field schools. In Kosovo this would include the very creative and moving works created in the ten-year period when teaching and learning for Kosovar Albanian professors, teachers and students was made in the “parallel” universities, at private homes, in cellars, away from the Serbian-favored education centers. Periods of stress like the ones lived in Eritrea and Kosovo are always rich in artistic creations.

When the national museums of Eritrea and Kosovo concentrate their efforts on the archaeological collections, their tasks are not without problems (In a logistic sense, let alone a “productive” sense, contemporary history is perhaps easier to display in these two cases.)

The logistical problems faced by the staff of the museums of Kosovo and Eritrea are great: (1) financial means are very limited; (2) professional expertise of museum staff is outdated; (3) conditions of the buildings is poor and space is limited; and (4) ownership of collections and status of holdings has been affected by political events. These are not small problems and they affect the museum’s public image. But more importantly, the perception the museum staff has of the role of the museum in the public arena and the conception of its place in building and reconstructing national identity is very limited. They are unclear on how to improve the museum role as a partner in the cultural development of the country, beyond the very basic fact that the population comes to the museum to observe the material culture of the country. 

First, the financial means are very scarce for the construction of the National Museum in Eritrea, or the reconstruction of the Museum of Kosovo. There is little foreign aid aimed at museums. The emergency funds available in the first 14 months in Kosovo were aimed at reconstruction of infrastructure. Then, the aid dwindles to very basic projects (much of the funds are redirected to other countries in emergency, namely Serbia, after Milosevic’s fall). Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) have some projects related to cultural heritage that they conduct under the supervision of the Department of Culture of Kosovo. This department also tries to supervise the radical “reconstruction” of mosques in Kosovo made by Middle Eastern agencies. Museums attract little help for now. The situation is even more desperate in Eritrea. The needs for culture and education has clearly not waken the spirit of Western NGO’s to support programs in Eritrea

Second, professional expertise is inexistent or outdated. Kosovar museum staff has had ten years of lack of periodical upgrading of their skills. Many worked in the museums under Serbian directors and staff and found themselves in secondary positions. In Eritrea, there are no specialists in museography that could prepare the master plan for the museum.

The condition of the buildings is also a problem. The National Museum of Eritrea is in the premises of an old Italian religious school with small rooms in very bad shape. In Kosovo, the museum is the most valuable building in Pristina. Unfortunately, the building has been occupied for two years now by a European agency, limiting the museum staff to the basement and a couple of rooms upstairs. Many of the wooden artifacts found by the agency in the rooms were stacked inappropriately in a single room. The Museum of Kosovo would not have the room to plan a comprehensive exhibit.

Fourth, ownership of collections has been affected by political events. Eritrea was a province of Ethiopia. All the archaeological materials excavated in Eritrea up to 1992 were stored in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Asmara had a provincial museum that also was deprived of its most important artifacts when Ethiopia abandoned the territory. The Museum of Kosovo lent in early 1999, under its Serbian director, a collection of 700 artifacts for an exhibit in Belgrade. Those artifacts have not been returned. The Department of Culture and the Museum of Kosovo are making effort to have the collection returned. They have posted a “virtual collection” ( to show the most important artifacts.


The argument presented here is in line with the topic of this session: national museums are part of the cultural heritage, whether it is concerned with portable or monumental objects or historical facts, and their needs should to be addressed in short, medium and long term planning strategies. These strategies should take into account the needs of the nation, and the museum, as a dynamic vehicle of those goals, should be permanently updated.

It is common at the birth of a new nation to create an institution that can display in an all-encompassing exhibit the material culture found in the territory. National museums accomplish that role. In this paper I have argued that the public and social impact of the development of national museums is, in the cases reviewed, limited by the priorities of its contents. The topics of the exhibits are often misguided and do not reflect the needs of the country. In the two cases reviewed, archaeology, an important component in such museums, is neither an immediate nor a feasible priority. Furthermore, a logical plan for the national museum is impinged by cases where the directorship of the museum is in hands of archaeologists. This will prevent a rational use of the resources for the more dire needs of the nation. Eritrea and Kosovo face the same problem of determining the facts that will start creating national identity and finding the mechanisms to build it. And their national museums are still not conceived as important instruments in that task.

BL, April 2001

Nota: The field research for this paper was made in-situ as I was in charge of academic duties and cultural management projects in each country. These tasks put me in direct contact and supervision of the national museums and their activities. These duties made me approach the problems of these institutions in a broader perspective than the one provided by my archaeological training. General anthropological issues and requirements for new approaches in cultural management did provide the substance for my rejection of archaeology as a part in the creation of the new museums.