Museums connect people with their culture and its history, but the advent of the coronavirus has impeded that vital connection. In this interview, Sarita Vujković, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Republic of Srpska (MSURS) illustrates how museums, adapted to new and digital ways of organising art exhibitions and events. As a selector and creator of numerous exhibitions in the field of contemporary art practice, she deals with criticism and theory of contemporary visual art. Author and co-author of scientific texts, books, monographs in the field of museology, gender theory and contemporary art, Ms Vujković has been the commissioner of the Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina twice at the Venice Biennale (2013, 2017). She has also served as the president of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) - National Committee of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the vice president of the ICOM South East Europe Alliance.
What are your roles and responsibilities when it comes to actions and response measures related to COVID-19?
How did you adjust your work to the Covid-19 situation and what were your first thoughts when the restriction measures were imposed?
The situation caused by the COVID-19 emergency which we suddenly found ourselves in has forced upon us new roles and responsibilities, both in our private and professional lives. The first measures we introduced to help mitigate the impacts of the pandemic included the modification of operating procedures, less working hours and working from home. The vital need to protect people meant implementing social distancing and other restrictive measures, which led to new circumstances, unknown to culture and art.
Like many museums worldwide, a completely new reality hit MSURS, which led to the loss of a significant part of our audience. Only a few visitors attended or saw our exhibitions and events due to imposed restrictions regulating safe visitor numbers, which made it almost impossible to organise events in the usual way.
These circumstances forced us to find new ways to approach, attract and communicate with our audience; hence, it was necessary to redirect our operations and host them on online platforms. To exemplify, a virtual tour of the museum was made available through its official website.
Digital media and new social networks set for communication purposes, acted as platforms for the presentation of various museum exhibitions and accompanying events to the public. The restrictive measures showed the dawning of the new digital era. Previously perceived as a distant one, it occurred without a warning and we were completely unprepared for this transformation to occur so rapidly.
Is there any particular moment during the COVID-19 response that in your opinion stands out?
A major challenge during this period was the implementation of big pre-planned projects, jubilee events that could not be postponed. For instance, the 30th Nadežda Petrović Memorial, one of the oldest biennials of contemporary art in the region of the former Yugoslavia, celebrated its 60th Anniversary this year, with me as the exhibition selector. The exhibition, titled South, South! Let's go South!, served as a platform for a joint regional project that connected institutions from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.
The scope of the exhibition held in the City of Čačak, required that we stage it at 6 indoor venues and 5 public outdoor locations, specially selected and used for the needs of the exhibition as out-of-the-ordinary venues, particularly suitable for audiences in view of the ongoing pandemic. By connecting several exhibition locations, along with some other locations in public space, other cultural institutions in the city included, the exhibition gave a special visual appearance and primarily emphasised the importance of the 30th Nadežda Petrović Memorial in terms of interdepartmental cooperation.
What is the biggest challenge (as a woman) that you faced or concern that you had while working on this?
The biggest challenge involved making the 30th Nadežda Petrović Memorial exhibition available and safe for visitors, since it included 30 artists from 7 countries of the region, and brought into special focus 10 women artists and their works produced specifically for the needs of the exhibition.
More so, it was challenging to find the right way to present this great regional project in circumstances that limited communication and constrained visitors living outside the City of Čačak to see the exhibition. For these reasons, we devoted assiduous attention to video materials as a new presentation format, video reviews and short documentaries, which made the exhibition available for our audience.
From your own experience in this past year, what do you think is the one thing/issue/topic that should be addressed if we are to recover better?
My personal experience this year showed me the importance of having digital materials, and not only those materials used to present the exhibits found in any exhibition on show at any given moment, but also materials that constitute museum archives and collections. This period awakened us to the need to digitise museum collections, artworks and all visual materials that are part of the archives, i.e. materials and documentation of an exhibition or project. In addition, the new circumstances have led us to regard museology in a new way, which does not necessarily include visits to museums in person, but through new means of communication easily accessed from the comfort of one’s own home.
Next year will be of tremendous importance for the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Republic of Srpska, because of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration, which means that all recovery efforts will be instituted with this important jubilee in mind. These exceptional circumstances have created the need for us to mark the year that the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary in a manner different from the usual celebratory events. New exhibitions, digital content and events will be vital in bringing the audience back to museums and in reinforcing the role of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Republic of Srpska as a major social factor in its local community.
Is there anyone who inspired you personally with words or action, in this period?
As an art historian, I trust special inspiration can also be drawn from the past, and this year I found it in the life and work of Nadežda Petrović. She is the region’s greatest female artist, and the fact that her life ended in 1915, during the great epidemic typhus pandemic that ravaged the region during World War I killing over 150,000 people, resonates with the current COVID-19 crisis.
The work on the 30th Nadežda Petrović Memorial at a time when the world is going through a similar pandemic meant a direct connection to her time and the epidemic that also cost her life. Nadežda Petrović’s enthusiasm, ideals and vision of life as she fought for human rights, especially for the rights of women and female artists, are a great inspiration that can provide significant motivation in this day and age.
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