by Slavko SPASIĆ, MSc*
More than a century of existence, work, but also dreams for museum building and permanent exhibition
Natural History Museum in Belgrade represents one of the oldest scientific and cultural institution in Serbia, celebrating 122 years of existing. From the date of its foundation (1895), it is gathering the most respectful names in the fields of scientific research and the culture. Today, the Museum has 120 collections covering close to 2 million items, which ranks the Museum amongst the leading Natural History Museums of South-East Europe.
These naturalist collections are enormously important, as they document the wildlife of Serbia and adjacent Balkan regions, and demonstrate the development of these areas from the ancient times to the present. They contain specimens of plant and animal species which are no longer exist in its original habitats, as they have either become extinct or migrated to other parts under the influence of humans. Several hundred holotypes and unique samples of minerals, rock, plant or animal materials have won the holdings of the Museum importance at the international level. It is an organisation rich in tradition and experience, with a well-developed network of international connections. It is the only museum of its kind in Serbia.
The General Herbarium of the Balkan Peninsula, listed with the International Herbarium Network, is one of Museum’s most important collections. A few other collections of importance are as follows:
- collection of minerals of Trepča mine (largest lead lead zinc mine in Europe)
- collection of minerals and ore specimens of Serbia;
- collection of meteorites;
- collections of paleofloras of the Devonian, Carboniferous, early Cretacean and Tertiary ages in Serbia;
- collections of Paleozoic, Mezozoic, Tertiary and Quaternary invertebrates;
- Collection of Pikermian fauna from the vicinity of Veles, Macedonia;
- Collections of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals;
- A rich entomology collection.
The Museum houses a specialised scientific Library, containing over 27.000 books, manuscripts, scientific periodicals, geographic and geological maps. The Library is the cornerstone of research undertaken by scientists and students.
The Museum also runs an Education service whose lectures and workshops are organised jointly with schools to enrich the regular school curricula.
The Gallery of Museum, situated at the Belgrade Kalemegdan fortress, is used to house exhibitions, presentations, lectures and promotions. The Museum Gallery prepares and mounts 3 to 4 different exhibitions every year.
The Problems and Needs
The Museum building covers the surface of 1200 m2, while the Gallery is about 200 m2. This lack of space creates problems with housing collections, designing a permanent exhibition, enriching specialised exhibitions and offering supplementary programs.
Collections are housed in inadequate conditions using substandard technology and equipment, and it is only through the dedicated care of the Museum staff that they are preserved from deterioration and destruction.
The lack of space also limits acquisition new specimens. Many potential donors would welcome an opportunity to contribute their collections to the Museum, but have not done so because of the inadequacy of collection storage conditions.
The solution to all these problems would be very simple: a new and purpose-specific building for the Museum. This is an issue that has dogged us since the founding of the Museum, and it has not been solved to date. Many times, the State has expressed its intentions to allocate a new building to the Museum. However, so far, these intentions have not been realised.
Although its building is old, the staff of the Museum are young and highly educated.
The Museum’s curators are keen and active participants in domestic and international conferences and seminars, maintain a prolific production and publication of scientific papers in periodicals, and are often involved in projects in the country and abroad.
The Museum cooperates with other museums in Serbia, governmental and non-governmental organisations, and various faculties of the University and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. The Museum’s employees are also actively involved in the work of the Museum Association of Serbia, as well as that of the ICOM Serbia.
The Museum maintains fruitful cooperation with the media. We are involved in the filming of specialised TV programs and films, participate in the preparation of TV and radio contributions and newspaper articles, and prepare media releases. We work with publishing houses to produce specialised editions and monographs.
The Natural History Museum is an institution of national importance, as well as the status of the central database for the study of naturalist subjects in Serbia.
The Museum is also an important scientific centre in the areas of ecology, environmental protection and biodiversity. This activity has ensured long years of scientific continuity.
The long-term strategy of the Museum is to continue the process of knowledge accumulation, increase the size of its collections, strengthen its influence in society and set in motion new processes.
Short-term, by communicating better with the public, it aims to meet not only cultural and educational, but also emotional needs of its audiences. The Museum will seek to make its holdings more available to the public and increase the quality of the offer, to strengthen marketing and PR activities and, finally, to acquire new space.
Future priorities include preparing a permanent exhibition, organising more attractive thematic and specialised exhibitions, developing quality programs and creating and strengthening a museum “brand”, to communicate the idea of the Natural History Museum in Belgrade as a unique centre of cultural, scientific and educational activity.
The Museum does not dispose with an appropriate building nor with a permanent exhibition. In place of some permanent exhibition at certain space, it has been applied a new strategic line of approach of a permanent exhibition in time. There is applied the changing exhibition and this is the way of constant exposing of certain specimen from our treasure from collections to the public.
In order to realise our mission, we had to imagine a clear vision and to have defined strategic goals, which have determined our strategic plan, which are consist og following components: using manager approach in culture we are constantly making an increase of total number of visitors. We reach that by raising the number of exhibitions and manifestations, with dinamic interactive work with a public, organising blockbuster exhibition, and traveling exhibition throughout Serbia, and so no matter that we have the smallest exhibition space (200 m²), we become the most visited museum, with over 200.000 visitors per year. With the managing approach and strategy in public we permanently pay attention to the problem of non-having the appropriate space and we do that with the increasin the number of visitors and by campaign.
The strategic approach to achieve that is:
- permanent affirmation of a scientific work in Museum, using referent collections and scientific investigations at terrain;
- participating in scientific research national and international projects;
- permanent evaluation of scientifical work;
- professional learning and vocational training (doctor’s and master’s degree, licences, skills);
- international cooperation with the other culture institutions in the region and Europe
- changing experiences, informations and exhibition with the other institutions in the region and Europe;
- organising blockbuster exhibition (like travelling exhibition “Giants of Patagonia”)
The quality of museum projects represents the main factor of understanding museums as spiritual-cultural centers of one’s own social environment that, on the one hand, influences the content of its work, and – on the other, interprets it. If that comes true, the museum will become a source of energy in society.
The significance of the projects of the Natural History Museum is not only limited to taking a look back at the history of nature and contemplating it, but rather makes the museum an important actor in topical discussions on social issues related to nature, no matter if they are cultural or scientific, as well as to classifying museums into a relevant center of its community. Today, in the era of national and global challenges related to the protection of the living environment, the work performed by such an institution is even more significant as a center for research, education and cultural understanding and exchange.
Modern collectors’ and exhibition activity is no longer safe in the stable environment of educated citizens, but has rather become a rival to increasingly numerous media offers and the entertainment society, whose leading principle is the incessant staging of events.
If we want to preserve the museum as a place where something is collected and preserved and a place where people are educated, then we have to adapt it to new contexts, not neglecting tasks of the museum and its essence.
The basis of the innovative concept of the museum consists of the continuous dynamics of the internal structure, the business strategy and the technique of communication.
Contemporary society requires that contemporary manners of presentation should be used. So, different manners of communication require that such methods should be used that keep on adapting to current needs and expectations for each visitor’s important and significant experiences.
Being unique not only for its collections, the Natural History Museum in Belgrade has, in the previous years, shown that it does not only exist for its own purpose, but also that it has become dynamic, available to the public, and that it has presented the brightness of its collections in the best light. By organizing traveling exhibitions in towns and cities throughout Serbia, we have been achieving one of our priority goals – making cultural contents closer to Serbia’s citizens. Simultaneously, irrespective of inadequate conditions, the creative work with pre-school- and schoolchildren, as well as with persons with special needs, makes our institution socially responsible and aware of its role in the cultural-educational system.
In 2013, the Natural History Museum in Belgrade received the prestigious professional award “Mihajlo Valtrovic” for the best museum in Serbia, awarded by the Museum Society of Serbia.
In 2016, the Museum received a medal from the President of the Republic of Serbia for exceptional results achieved in the field of culture, science and education.
*Slavko SPASIĆ MSc, is biologist, master engineer of organizational sciences, curator and former Director of the Natural History Museum in Belgrade, Chair of the National Committee of ICOM Serbia, member of ICOM Committee for Strategic planning, INTERCOM, NATHIST, National Advisory Committee to monitor the implementation of the Hague Convention for the Protection Cultural Heritage in the event of Armed Conflict. He focused his research activities toward building of management framework in culture and positioning heritage institutions within the tourist offer of Serbia.
Working as the director of the Natural History Museum in Belgrade, Slavko Spasić was engaged in developing the image of the Museum as an indispensable, highly professional and competent institution of culture, education and science, achieving along the way very good cooperation with state authorities, media and other respected institutions and individuals from the fields of culture and science, both from the country and abroad. At the same time, he ensured the application of economic principles and parameters in the organization and realization of cultural activities and contributed to the development of management as a system of managing, supporting and organizing cultural, scientific and educational activities of the Museum.
As the president of ICOM Serbia National Committee he has been working toward carving out a more distinct position of the National Committee, strengthening the cooperation with the Museum Society of Serbia, increasing the number of institutional members, networking with Regional Committees, continuing education of museum professionals and actively participating in public discussions and analyses of legal regulations in culture and conventions related to the protection of cultural heritage.