In Skopje, Museums Languish While Pseudo-Historical Monuments Thrive8 min read

 In Culture, Photography, Southeastern Europe
In North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, monumental statues, fountains, and edifices stand tall, symbolising the artificially-made national narrative of Macedonian history through the ages. Yet, in spending millions of Euros on styrofoam pillars and fake galleons, the government has neglected the city’s museums, the traditional preservers and patrons of culture and history.

Situated above the Skopje Fortress and overlooking the Vardar River, the Museum of Contemporary Art is one of North Macedonia’s largest and most comprehensive national institutions. Made up of three connected wings, the museum features over 3,000 square metres of exhibition space, a cinema theatre with 120 seats, a library and archives, and a cafeteria, among other things. Yet, on a sultry Friday afternoon in June, the museum appeared as if a remnant in a post-apocalyptic world.

There were no visible signs of human life, and a walk around the back, providing a look into vacant galleries, was only more evidence that the museum was no longer in use. Yet a tug on the main door revealed the museum to be, to all intents and purposes, still operational, though not to its full capacity by any stretch of the imagination. The cafeteria has been closed, and only one, at most two, rooms are open to visitors, though these present worthy exhibitions, if rather empty. Those selling tickets seemed at a loss as to why anyone would come, and made sure it was clear little of the museum was actually open to visitors. It was clear that in Skopje, a city dominated by giant historical statues and pseudo-Classical buildings, there was little support for the traditional patrons of culture and history — museums. 

Creating a Classical utopia in a Brutalist capital

Situated in the centre of the Balkan peninsula, halfway between Belgrade and Athens, the North Macedonian capital is a city of contrasts. Following a disastrous earthquake in 1963, which destroyed close to 80 percent of the city, Skopje became an exemplary model of Brutalist architecture. By the collapse of Yugoslavia, however, these structures no longer served as symbols of architectural advancement, but rather as remnants of a less than glorious Socialist past with no connection to the new Macedonian identity being created. 

When conceptualising Macedonian history in the early 2000s, the then-ruling ultra-nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE focused on Antiquization, or ancient Macedonism, a type of identity politics that attempts to demonstrate the unbroken lineage of Macedonian history from the ancient Kingdom of Macedon, including the heritage of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, until the modern Republic of North Macedonia. In an attempt to popularise this narrative, the government launched the Skopje 2014 project, whereby Skopje became the face of this new national rendering. The sanctity of North Macedonian statehood and identity was promoted, focusing almost exclusively on ethnic Macedonian views, despite the multi-ethnic nature of the state. In addition, this conception pits itself directly against Greek and Bulgarian historical claims, further increasing tensions between the two EU nations at a time when North Macedonia is seeking EU accession. 

The Bridge of Civilisations in Macedonia, which cost around 650 000 Euros to build, and the and the National Archaeological Museum, for another 43 900 000 million Euros
Fake pillars from the Administrative Court of the Republic of Macedonia’s facade contrast with the Brutalist architecture of the Makedonski Telekom building

This reconstruction of the city, which took place over seven years, would see over 100 structures — including monuments, sculptures, bridges, buildings, and facades — built at a cost of over 650 million Euros, leaving little leftover in the state budget for public institutions, including museums. This high cost for shoddy work contributed to the fall of VMRO-DPMNE and Gruevski from power, the latter currently in exile in Hungary having been served with five prison sentences in absentia. In 2017, following the formation of a new centre-left government, the Skopje 2014 project was officially cancelled. While the new government assured the citizens of Skopje that it would deal with the criminal elements of the project and remove some of the monuments, little has been done to this effect. In doing so, the government continues to fail both its citizens and the city’s original patrons of history and culture. 

For Skopje’s museums, a cycle of neglect and disinterest

In the Old Bazaar, the Museum of North Macedonia is one of the oldest in the country, working to conserve and present the national Macedonian historical and cultural heritage. Much like the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is little to notify tourists that two buildings in this square make up one of the state’s most important museums. The museum docents are surprised at any sight-seers, running to notify their colleagues, switch on lights, and make sure everything is presentable (though they can’t do much about the rusting windows). 

One of the two buildings making up the Museum of North Macedonia
A view of Skopje’s Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring a dripping roof and empty galleries. 
Three paintings are the only sign of life in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upper floors
The headquarters of the Macedonian postal service, as designed by the North Macedonian architect and artist Janko Konstantinov, with a view of the Makedonski Telekom building in back

Even when incorporated into the Skopje 2014 project, Skopje’s museums and cultural repositories did not fare much better. For example, a brand new, neo-Classical style building was built at the cost of 42 million Euros to house the Archaeological Museum, Constitutional Court, and the National Archive. The last of these, the Macedonian National Archive, holds more than 56,000 historic documents, all of which need to be kept in a tightly controlled environment with little to no humidity. Located on the top two floors of this new building, however, these archival materials are in danger of rotting as the building’s shoddy construction means there is extensive leakage and flooding every time it rains. 

While just three examples, these museums are not unique in their run-down nature. Much of this stems from the lack of financing afforded to museums.

According to Zlatko Teodosievski, Senior Curator at North Macedonia’s National Art Gallery, museums (including the museum boards) are limited to whatever funds they receive from the government. This year, due to the economic crisis, the cultural budget is set to be reduced by 30 percent. 

“All this puts museums in a very difficult position to concentrate only on a few projects per year, which certainly is not enough and it does not fulfil their role in society. But it seems that the government does not care very much about it,” Teodosievski said. 

In addition, financial investments are frequently only given to museums whose directors belong to the same political party as the Minister of Culture, further restricting the ability of museums to ethically and accurately conserve and communicate North Macedonian history. When museums are unable to live up to their role in persevering, interpreting, and promoting the natural and cultural inheritance of humanity, as outlined in the International Council of Museums Code of Ethics, there is a loss of social trust in these institutions. A cycle begins by which the number of visitors continuously decreases as museums do not meet the community requirements (e.g. in terms of facility, public programming, educational, etc.), which further reduces the amount of funding they receive. This downward spiral is clearly in effect in Skopje. 

A constructed history survives at the expensive of original artefacts

A country’s museums are generally thought to be the traditional preservers and patrons of culture and history, using their archived materials to inform both local citizens and foreign tourists of the nation’s heritage. With Skopje 2014, however, the government decided to ignore the history that already exists and focus instead on creating a narrative through monuments and sculptures. In doing so, North Macedonia’s historical and cultural archives have been, quite literally, left to rot, and the diversity of the country’s history and culture forgotten in the focus to build a homogenous national narrative. 

The “Equestrian Warrior”, approximately 8 300 000 Euros, a monument to Alexander the Great, stands tall over Skopje’s bustling pedestrian zones. 
One of three fake galleons — in a city not known for sailing — set in concrete along the Vardar, posing a flood risk.

Furthermore, what was created presented a version of Macedonian identity and ancient history that was based on much later “European” reconstructions and imitations of antiquity, further illustrating the step back from historical accuracy. While every country does to some extent recreate its national history, Skopje 2014, as Teodosievski outlines, was the perfect example of criminal abuse of the country’s culture, history, and state budget, a crime that nobody, in power at least, seems to care about.

“It was a project that united the political, urban and cultural mafia and its ‘products’ are still standing in the heart of the city witnessing our impotence and inefficiency to deal with it. And it is not just the criminal outcome of the project but its kitsch, trashiness and ugliness that affects young people’s taste,” Teodosievski said. 

While the current government has stated their aim to start removing and renovating the Skopje 2014 structures, the economic crisis means many of these constructions are here to stay for the foreseeable future. It also means more museum support is unlikely to arrive anytime soon, arts and culture often coming towards the bottom of state budgets across the globe. But eventually, North Macedonia will need to decide if it is a state that embraces its national diversity and multi-ethnic history, or one that continues to deny its heritage.

Featured images: Alexandra Kuenning
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