Irina Subotić: Serbia in the European Year of Cultural Heritage

Irina Subotić: Serbia in the European Year of Cultural Heritage


This year the European Year of Cultural Heritage is celebrated throughout Europe. We spoke with Irinа Subotić, the President of the organisation Europa Nostra Serbia and a longtime professor and curator of the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade about what is European cultural heritage and how we should raise awareness of it.

In your opinion, what is European cultural heritage?

It’s not just the Versailles, the Armitage, the Acropolis and the Dečani… Even a small trace of material or immaterial nature, in a remote part of Europe can be considered a part of the European cultural heritage. Provided that it is related to a significant date and it has local tradition, it contributes to a better view of European and global history and culture, it has special characteristics that enrich the European and the global civilisation, and primarily if memory was preserved and value was built around it and meticulously transferred to next generations, that is. This is not a definition of European cultural heritage — it is only what I believe should be taken into consideration so that experience and wealth of personalities, ideas, accomplishments and events throughout the history of Europe could be preserved and protected — especially in the times of novel and rapid global changes.

Which historical periods and events of Serbian history and elements of cultural heritage are most important and interesting to you from the point of view of the common European cultural space, shared history?

My previous answer already assumed that on the European level I consider important all periods that left certain characteristic marks on our history as well: no monument is identical, and each has its own peculiarities — unique in Europe and interesting for the sake of comparison with other geographic areas. This is also true of our customs, our cultural regions, and it is certainly true of the oldest, prehistoric and antique locations, but also the medieval heritage created under the influence of the Byzantine Empire, and in numerous encounters with the Western European cultures. It is a shame that a large part of the Ottoman heritage was destroyed and neglected, because today it could attest to the several centuries’ long influence this culture had on our own. Modernisation currents starting from the XVII and XVIII centuries, all the way through XIX and XX centuries, have their own specific traits because the East was connecting with the West in our region, and there were also influences coming from the North and the South. Moreover, the Yugoslavian socialist experiences in the fields of architecture and memorials are being researched in detail globally today. Thus, the Museum of Modern Art in New York will dedicate a big exhibition to this during the current year; a brilliant young architecture historian, Vladimir Kulić PhD, who graduated from the Belgrade Faculty of Architecture, is working on it.

However, due to ideological reasons and certainly out of ignorance and being driven by personal gain, we easily renounce and destroy this heritage — whenever we can. It is not only hostile conquests or bombarding to blame for this — it is also the will of the power, authorities and mundane interests. In Belgrade alone, examples of this are numerous: the demolition of one part of the military headquarters designed by the architect Nikola Dobrović in the Miloša Velikog St, and other buildings from the period of the Socialist Modernism; shopping mall Rajićeva in the middle of the most beautiful city core; planned demolition of the Student Square below which there are unexplored remains of a Roman camp; the announced gondola which will, paired with the construction of the Belgrade Waterfront, distort the historical view of the fortress, eternalised in many drawings and engravings as early as the Middle Ages…Apart from these historical, architectonic, urbanist, aesthetic and professional reasons — we must speak about other problems related to this — social, financial, ecologic… there are many more examples.

In your opinion, in what ways should awareness be developed and the feeling of belonging to this shared history and values be empowered?

We cannot do anything without proper education, upbringing: within a family, in kindergartens and schools. And I mean long-term! However, I don’t mean this should be done through words and strict lessons, but through good examples; certainly not through reality shows on (almost) all TV stations and primitive ads. Debates on this exist for years now, but no one has the will nor strength to change our educational system. The media are not doing any good…

Would you highlight any projects of contemporary creativity dealing with cultural heritage that you particularly like?

There are numerous artist who brilliantly related their creativity with the culture of remembrance, as if it was about recapitulating the past and a certain anxiety towards inevitable future… I could mention many artists. I’ll use this occasion to highlight only the exquisite works of Marija Dragojlović: she used old family photos, masterfully enlarged by Vladimir Popović, and she breathed in new life into them through her own interventions, preserved them from oblivion and created a fantastic link between the old and the new, especially together with her own black and white photos of Venice — the miraculous city that grew close to her heart and to which she gave her unique sentimental view through the lens.

Would you highlight any projects from the field of cultural heritage successfully collaborating with other sectors?

In this field there are numerous interesting and important projects. I would like to highlight our small crew from Europa Nostra Serbia and Višnja Kisić PhD, the General Secretary gathering co-operators and organising events throughout Serbia regularly, even throughout the region, together with a diverse set of educational workshops related to the awareness of preserving heritage.

Some twenty years ago or so, during the rough times prior to the NATO bombing, an interesting project of the Council of Europe was initiated within the Group 484 that we could have applied as well, even though we were under sanctions. Within the project entitled One school – one monument we collaborated with schools in several Serbian cities, encouraged professors or teachers of history, the Serbian language, visual arts or philosophy — whoever was interested to “approximate” a close by location to their students, the location most frequently having been abandoned or neglected, with the aim of exploring its origin and attempting to preserve it. There were some very nice results because students loved this novel way of education, searching through archives and the media, speaking with elderly locals or specialists in specific fields. For some objects — an old wall, a grave, a chapel, an abandoned warehouse and the like, they provided cleaning and a small restoration, and then they preserved it, wrote about it. In this way, several once unnoticeable monumental marks — of course, on the level of the European heritage! — found their young admirers and in this way, and potentially, secured their longer survival. Unfortunately, this project did not continue, it did not become a part of the educational system in schools. Some other “values” are in power…

In your opinion, in what way should domestic organisations and the cultural system in Serbia mark the European year of cultural heritage?

I will go back again to extra-curricular education, good examples that should be followed, and there are numerous such examples in Europe. What could be done is holding interesting, popular lectures about our and European most important monuments of all epochs, organising workshops for youth and children and creating a series of exhibitions that would present systems of heritage preservation throughout Europe, the most successful results in this area, how to nurture tradition in different areas of heritage, how to work with audiences, especially the young ones, how locals fight to preserve their environment on the local level, how they participate in decision making on what is most important to them… We could also “adopt” excellent examples of others, so they would become our own as well.

However, in order to do this, it is not sufficient that the civil sector and good will of individuals simply exist. It would take the cultural system in the country being liberated from the negative layers that have built up — from the political party ones, to narrower, frequently personal and lucrative interests, from retrograde, conservative criteria and lack of knowledge to more emphasised primitivism, being self-absorbed and self-sufficient. Our views should be critically directed towards the present and creatively towards the future, rather than being pathetically directed towards a simulated, shining past we are showered with, clogging the free flow of new ideas.

Irina Subotić is the Vice President of Europa Nostra, as well as its board member. For the Serbian branch of Europa Nostra, she is engaged as a chairperson. Having received her PhD in art history, she is teaching at several MA programmes of the University of Arts in Belgrade. For decades she worked as a curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum in Belgrade by organising numerous exhibitions of avant-garde and modern art, participating in various conferences and publishing studies and monographs. She is a member of several national and international professional and non-governmental organisations such as AICA and ICOM. Alongside history of contemporary art, her major fields of interest are museum education and engaging the civil sector in the protection and promotion of heritage.