War Childhood Museum

Jasminko Halilovic

Founder and Director, War Childhood Museum

War Childhood Museum

Logavina 32 71000 Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina


Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina 

Council of Europe Museum Prize 2018


Stories Told by People, for People



The War Childhood Museum (WCM) is a people’s museum—people’s stories, people’s objects, people’s terms. Some of the objects on display are rare manuscripts people risked their lives to save, while others are chocolate bar wrappers that are still in production. A hundred years ago, how many museums would display chocolate bar wrappers that are still in production? The museum industry is changing with the emergence of story-based and socially conscious museums. The WCM provides a caring home for objects that are significant for those whose childhoods were affected by armed conflict.





The War Childhood Museum would not have been possible in any other century. It all started in 2010, when I posted the following question online: ‘What was a war childhood for you?’ To respond people needed access to a computer, the Internet, and an email address. Responses were limited to 160 characters. Within the first day, 100 people responded. Within three months, 1,500 people had responded, with diaspora responding from 35 different countries. This research project took about two years to carry out and turn into a book. During that time, I communicated directly via email with most of the respondents. Several provided lengthier accounts of their experience and attached pictures of the items they carried with them through and past war time: ballet slippers, blankets, toys, food packaging, journals, clothes, medical supplies, and tools. The more I communicated with them, the more conscious I became of the fact that these treasures, both in story and object form, might be lost in a few years. My aim was not only to find a place to protect the objects, but also preserve their significance to individuals. Objects, without interpretation, are often meaningless. Without a story, a blanket that embodied security for a young child during dark hours is just a blanket. The blanket is valuable because of its relationship to humanity. Without the story, without the voice, and without the experience of its owner, its significance would be lost. Upon completing my book entitled War Childhood, it became my mission to preserve these artefacts and create a platform for these stories to resound with others. I noted a distinct difference in the response from participants when I started saying ‘I am founding a museum’ rather than ‘I am working on a research project’. This response brings to light the powerful aura of the word ‘museum’. Museums are considered to be trusted institutions, important places, places to be admired, places to enjoy, and places for the community to gather. Participants were pleased to be part of the War Childhood research project, but being part of a museum solely dedicated to telling their story, was for them, something extraordinary. Museums, as respected institutions, are powerful platforms to change the way people interact with the past. For instance, before the War Childhood project evolved into a museum, the public had limited access to the War Childhood project. Museums, on the other hand, are rich because they are meeting places. Museums are also more age inclusive; research projects are typically carried out by academics, but museums are more accessible to communities, families, and individuals. Those who are not be aware of the War Childhood book, might be more inclined to look up TripAdvisor’s ‘#1 thing to do in Sarajevo’, and visit the WCM. Children who might be too young to read the book can also visit the museum. Museums have the special power to bridge gaps between citizens and cities. I dreamt that the WCM would become a place that individuals carry in their own personal maps of significant Sarajevo landmarks; landmarks that also contribute to their identity. In 2015, Selma Tanović, a medical anthropologist and doctor, and Amina Krvavac, a researcher and children’s rights activist, joined me in dreaming up and planning the creation of the War Childhood Museum. The project team, with the consultation of several psychologists, developed a methodology and began working on creating a collection for the future museum by collecting objects, personal stories, and video testimonies. In January 2017, this project, which began online, got its permanent home in Sarajevo after a public campaign that put pressure on the government to help find a space for the WCM.




The museum today
The museum is located close to the old town on one of the oldest streets in Sarajevo, Logavina Street. When visitors arrive at the museum, one of the first things they will notice is a group of neighbourhood kids playing in front of the building. When the weather is cold, they sometimes do their homework in the museum’s book nook. When visitors walk through the door, they are greeted by one or two members of the Museum staff who have been trained to approach visitors with warmth and sensitivity. As an institution, we are aware that you can never know what a visitor’s previous experiences might have been and how personal this visit might be, so we try to be as mindful of visitors as possible. As a small museum, one of the things we can offer visitors is a personalised experience. The museum staff is available and willing to support visitors in any way they can.
The exhibition space itself is predominantly grey. The only colourful things in the exhibition area are the objects themselves. We try to curate the exhibition in much the same way: though the subject matter is difficult, we try to curate the exhibition so that stories of uncommon kindness and love also have space to breathe. The exhibition is curated so that a diverse set of experiences and emotions are evoked, and all stories given equal weight. Walking through the exhibition hall or main gallery, you can observe couples hugging, people sitting to listen to the video testimonies, and young children taking a specialised tour. In addition, there are often students on school visits or attending educational workshops. Education is an important pillar of the museum’s focus. To make the subject matter more accessible, the WCM hosts educational workshops at schools around the country. Working with thousands of school children every year, the WCM aims to contribute to a greater understanding of the importance of peace.

At the end of the exhibition, some visitors leave in a hurry, some talk to our museum guides, while others sit and rest. Visitors often write in the guest book on their way out. One entry reads: With appreciation, deep humility and love, love, love for this museum but mostly for its subjects, the many other stories untold, and the great people that lived through and turn horror to triumph every day by existing and carrying on. You honor us with your perseverance and serve as a reminder that all can be overcome. Thank you.

This comment captures what is at the heart of the museum: the stories, which are presented with dignity and respected by visitors. These are the stories that inspire empathy and hope. Stories told by people, for people.




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