Side Or­der

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY PA­TRICK ROBERTS travel@wash­

A small mu­seum with an Olympian heart.

Edin Nu­mankadic ex­tin­guishes his cig­a­rette. “If you look at the his­tory of Sara­jevo in the 20th cen­tury,” says the af­fa­ble 62-yearold as we chat in his of­fice, “peo­ple know about the be­gin­ning of the FirstWorldWar, they know about the siege [1992 to 1995], and they know about the 1984 Win­ter Olympic Games. The Olympic Games is the only pos­i­tive, and that’s why we care about this cul­tural her­itage.”

Nu­mankadic is di­rec­tor of the 24th Win­ter Olympics Mu­seum in Sara­jevo, the cap­i­tal of Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina. It’s a small, sleepy gallery tucked within the chipped con­crete walls of the Ze­tra Olympic Cen­ter, one of two large ice skat­ing sta­di­ums built for the 1984 Olympics, and the site of Amer­i­can Scott Hamil­ton’s goldmedal-win­ning per­for­mance in men’s fig­ure skat­ing that year. Be­cause it’s some dis­tance from Sara­jevo’s bustling city cen­ter, the mu­seum is eas­ily over­looked by tourists cap­ti­vated by the cafes, sou­venir shops and his­tor­i­cal land­marks of the ex­otic, Ot­toman fla­vored Bas­car­sija tourist district.

But the Olympic Mu­seum is well worth a taxi ride. Ad­mis­sion is free, and al­though you may, upon ar­rival, find a gallery dark­ened to save elec­tric­ity, Nu­mankadic will greet you like an old friend and hap­pily turn on the lights. For the Olympic Mu­seum is no or­di­nary mu­seum of sports mem­o­ra­bilia, and Nu­mankadic, es­sen­tially its sole em­ployee, is no or­di­nary mu­seum di­rec­tor.

“I’m an im­por­tant Bos­nian artist,” he tells me with a mod­est chuckle, show­ing me a black-and­white photo of him­self that An­nie Lei­bovitz took in Sara­jevo in 1993, dur­ing the siege.

“You know,” he says in slow English thick­ened by a charm­ing Balkan ac­cent, “when we lived in the pe­riod of so­cial­ism, you had only two chances to be an in­di­vid­ual: to go into art or to go into sports. All my gen­er­a­tion went in these two ways.”

Nu­mankadic chose art, and in 1983 he was asked to help or­ga­nize and di­rect a mu­seum to com­mem­o­rate the Sara­jevo Olympics. Af­ter it opened in 1984, Nu­mankadic went on to en­joy an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion as an artist.

One of his most fa­mous works is an in­stal­la­tion piece con­sist­ing of the ta­ble and two chairs and the small sundry items that com­prised the ma­te­rial lim­its of his artis­tic life dur­ing the siege. In that four-year pe­riod, af­ter the breakup of com­mu­nist Yu­goslavia when Bos­ni­ans and Serbs bat­tled for con­trol of the city dur­ing the Bos­nian War, more than 10,000 men, women and chil­dren were killed in Sara­jevo. And Nu­mankadic never stopped work­ing as an artist.

“When you have hor­ri­ble de­struc­tion, you must be con­struc­tive to sur­vive,” he re­flects. “So art was like health, like mental en­ergy that gives you some hope to sur­vive.”

A se­ries of paint­ings he cre­ated af­ter the war, he tells me, are his de­pic­tions of lit­er­ary texts. And who wrote these texts?

“Peo­ple who have suf­fer­ing,” he replies. “Dur­ing the war I say, ‘My God, which opin­ion can I be­lieve? Only artists who have suf­fer­ing. They will give me the truth.’ ”

Like most of Sara­jevo’s many small mu­se­ums, which strug­gle to keep go­ing in a dif­fi­cult eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, the most re­mark­able thing about the Olympics Mu­seum may be the fact that it still ex­ists at all. In 1992, en­emy com­bat­ants shelled the mu­seum’s orig­i­nal build­ing, a 1903 beaux-arts house that once served as the Amer­i­can con­sulate, into ru­ins. Un­der dan­ger­ous, chaotic con­di­tions, Nu­mankadic and a hand­ful of oth­ers spir­ited the col­lec­tion away to the Ze­tra. Soon af­ter, the Ze­tra it­self was bombed, and its grounds later served as a tem­po­rary morgue and grave­yard. Stored in the build­ing’s base­ment, most of the Olympic Mu­seum’s col­lec­tion sur­vived. With the help of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee and the Euro­pean Union, the Ze­tra re­opened in 1999. The Olympic Mu­seum fol­lowed in 2004.

Half a dozen cig­a­rettes and one cup of strong cof­fee af­ter my ar­rival, Nu­mankadic leads me into the mu­seum gallery and turns on the lights. He shows me a short, mov­ing doc­u­men­tary film that car­ries mefrom the glory of the ’84 games through the death and de­struc­tion of siege-stricken Sara­jevoa nd into the hope­ful prom­ise of peace and re­build­ing.

Af­ter the film, we walk through the ex­hibit, which is chrono­log­i­cally ar­ranged to tell that same hope­ful story. In glass dis­play cases lin­ing the walls are all the items one might ex­pect to find in a mu­seum ded­i­cated to the Olympics: Pho­to­graphs, medals, equip­ment, uni­forms, cos­tumes and sou­venirs. Near a par­tially melted gold medal that Nu­mankadic found in the ru­ins of the old mu­seum is a poster de­pict­ing the Olympic rings as cir­cles of drip­ping blood. It was cre­ated in 1994, “in the mid­dle of the siege,” Nu­mankadic re­minds me, to com­mem­o­rate the 10th an­niver­sary of the Sara­jevo Games.

Though the ex­ten­sive pre­sen­ta­tion of Olympic para­pher­na­lia is im­pres­sive, it is the mu­seum’s un­ex­pected art col­lec­tion that com­mands the room. Nu­mankadic first shows me a col­lec­tion of prints specif­i­cally com­mis­sioned for the games, in­clud­ing orig­i­nals by Andy Warhol, David Hock­ney and Mil­ton Glaser. Per­haps more im­pres­sive is the dis­play of more than 30 orig­i­nal paint­ings and sculp­tures do­nated by artists rep­re­sent­ing the re­publics of the for­mer Yu­goslavia. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art from the western Balkans, with most pieces dat­ing from be­fore the ’ 84 games. That such a col­lec­tion sur­vived the war is an­other tes­ta­ment to Nu­mankadic’s tena­cious be­lief in the power of art and sport to unify through ex­pres­sive in­di­vid­u­al­ity and cre­ative chal­lenge.

“You know, in the Olympic move­ment, art and sport are very near,” Nu­mankadic says. “For healthy body, you must have healthy spirit.”

Back in his of­fice, an­other cig­a­rette in hand, the di­rec­tor pa­tiently sums up the anal­ogy that de­fines both him and the mu­seum.

Artists and ath­letes push the cre­ative and per­for­mance lim­its of hu­mans, he re­flects, spir­i­tual on the one hand, phys­i­cal on the other. And in a coun­try where phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual en­durance have been tested by war and the hard­ened di­vi­sions of eth­nic and po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ence, it is an anal­ogy loaded with mean­ing.

“This mu­seum was built,” he says, “ be­cause it has hu­man value.”

And he smiles, the smoke hang­ing upon him like wreaths of ivy. Roberts, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Na­tional-Louis Uni­ver­sity in Chicago, was a 2010 Ful­bright scholar in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina.


Di­rec­tor Edin Nu­mankadic in Sara­jevo’s Win­ter OlympicMu­seum; and the Olympic flame in 1984, a me­mory nearly ex­tin­guished when the city was un­der siege in the ’90s.

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