A harsh open letter against the government’s behaviour has been signed by 79 intellectuals. They had decided to send the letter because the government continued its series of political purges of personnel from companies and the media with the recent early dismissal of the current director of the Museum of Contemporary History, Jože Dežman, and the director of the Museum of Slovenian Independence, Željko Oset.
The Minister of Culture, Asta Vrečko, appointed Nataša Robežnik, who was previously the head of the Pedagogical Department at the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia, as the temporary head of the new museum that was formed after the Museum of Slovenian Independence and the Museum of Contemporary History were merged – and the new museum does not have independence in its name.
With the symbolic abolition of the commemoration of independence, and thus the commemoration of the abolition of the one-party dictatorship in which the communist government deprived citizens of the most basic human freedoms, the main goal of the merger of the two museums was to remove Dežman, who, as a historian, had spent the last decades exposing the post-war massacres committed by the previous regime and other serious abuses of the previous regime, which did not even take care of the graves of the partisans because the ideology of the communist revolution was more important to them.
We are publishing the letter of the 79 intellectuals in its entirety below, as well as the additional protest letter of the Council of the public institution Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia:
WHO DECIDES ON MUSEUMS AND SLOVENIAN HERITAGE? THE PUBLIC, THE PROFESSION OR POLITICIANS?
“An open letter in support of museum autonomy
On Thursday, the 19th of January 2023, the Government of the Republic of Slovenia adopted a decision to abolish the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia and the Museum of Slovenian Independence and to merge them into a new museum institution. In a statement signed by most of the employees of the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia, the employees in question said that they had not been informed about and had not participated in the procedures for the abolition and merger of the two institutions. They were also not aware of any study on the spatial, contextual, and financial implications of the closure and merger. We, the signatories, are, therefore, surprised and disappointed that the Slovenian Museum Association, the Slovenian Museum Association and the International Council of Museums of Slovenia (ICOM), or rather, the leaderships of the associations which, according to their function and mission, should stand up for the autonomy of public institutions, publicly supported the government’s decision without prior consultation with their colleagues in the two museums which are subject to closure and merger with unclear consequences. Moreover, none of the associations, nor the Slovenian Museum Association, consulted their members or the members of their executive boards on the declaration, even though the letter calls for cooperation, integration, ethical communication, and the following of the principles of democracy, inclusiveness and participation.
It is unacceptable and undemocratic that the leaderships of key museum organisations and the Slovenian Museum Association make decisions without the knowledge and consent of their members. No wonder that the term “profession” is increasingly losing its public validity, and professionalism is increasingly becoming an empty word and museums a tool of political struggle.
Given the limited space, exhibition and storage facilities of the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia, the signatories of this letter do not consider it reasonable for the state to merge the two museums without a serious prior analysis of the possibilities of implementing the outlined programme and mission. The Slovenian Independence Museum should, according to its mission and in cooperation with other Slovenian museums and collections, deal with the heritage of independence as the central starting point of its activities. The museum concept was developed on the basis of contemporary heritage approaches. It is based on a constructive museum approach, on testimonies and the inclusion of different sides of the War of Independence, and intended to open up the visitor’s personal reflection. The museum was also established to acquire material over time and through public involvement, similar to many other Slovenian museums. The current government does not seem to realise that it is removing the symbolic and heritage foundation of its own country’s collective memory. This is a bad omen for the future of Slovenian statehood and the country’s independence. The Museum of Slovenian Independence, in accordance with the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, has followed the needs of contemporary society and has conceptually involved a large part of the Slovenian public, which believes that a museum commemorating our independence is necessary.
But to amend the founding acts and create a new institution just to replace two directors who are clearly not whom the ruling structures want in the leadership positions, is almost unthinkable, given that we are living in the year 2023. We would like to warn all Slovenian museum professionals that this is a dangerous legal precedent which undermines the possibility of democratic decision-making and contradicts the basic purpose of democracy. Let us not forget that democratic change of elites and the recognition of difference as a value are prerequisites for coexistence and social well-being. A pattern of changing directors through changes of constituent acts could, in the future, undermine the rule of law and replace democracy with an autocratic version of this regime. The precedent is also a serious threat to the independent museum profession.
We, the signatories, await and demand explanations from the leaderships of all the above-mentioned associations as to why they have chosen to support political elites without the consent of their members. Isn’t the basic mission of the associations and the Slovenian Museum Association to support museum professionals as guardians of our heritage?
We also expect explanations from the Ministry of Culture and demand that the decision on the abolition and merger, which was clearly made without any expert basis and serious preparation, be reconsidered. Heritage is the basic guiding principle of museum work, the creation of meaning and stories that make up our identity and the basis of any knowledge of the past. Therefore, the least we can expect from politicians is to respect the autonomy of museum professionals and not interfere with it by making unprofessional decisions.
We call on the public to stand up for Slovenian museum professionals by supporting and sharing this open letter. Only in this way will we be able to work together to ensure professionalism that is conducive to the democratisation of Slovenian society and that places heritage at the heart of values, among which openness and pluralism play an important role.
Ljubljana, Kamnik, the 26th of January 2023
- Marko Štepec, ddr. Verena Perko, dr. Jelka Pirkovič, dr. Renato Podbersič, Janko Boštjančič, dr. Alenka Miškec, dr. Iztok Durjava, dr. Tomaž Lazar, dr. Uroš Košir, dr. Lilijana Žnidaršič, dr. Tomaž Ivešić, dr. Luka Vidmar, prof. Anton Arko, dr. Mira Miladinović Zalaznik, dr. Boris Golec, dr. Aleš Maver, dr. Jurij Perovšek, mag. Lara Štrumej, Tomaž Zalaznik, Jože Bartolj, Irena Uršič, dr. Primož Lampič, Jože Romšek, mag. Nika Dolinar Romšek, Martin Cregeen, Miha Gabrovšek, mag. Mateja Tominšek Perovšek, mag. Vito Oražem, Alenka Juvan, dr. Pavlina Bobič, dr. Jure Volčjak, dr. Tamara Griesser Pečar, mag. Nataša Nemeček, dr. Brane Senegačnik, Andrej Modic, Ljubica Modic, dr. Helena Jaklitsch, Helena Janežič, dr. Vesna Krmelj, dr. Vanja Kočevar, Nataša Strlič, dr. Vincenc Rajšp, Janko Rožič, dr. Igor Salmič, Jožica Šparovec, prof. Milan Škrabec, dr. Jože Možina, dr. Marjan Senegačnik, mag. Barbka Gosar Hirci, dr. Janez Šumrada , dr. Monika Kokalj Kočevar, dr. Ivan Čuk, mag. Renny Rovšnik, mag. Jože Podpečnik, mag. Andrej Hirci, Peter Bergant, Katarina Jurjavčič, dr. Pavel Car, Metod Benedik, mag. Blaž Otrin, Angelika Hribar, Mitja Pezdir, Jožica Pezdir, dr. Ana Lavrič, dr. Dejan Pacek, mag. Leopold Kožar, dr. Gašper Oitzl, dr.Bojana Rogelj Škafar, dr. Janez Juhant, dr. Marko Mugerli, dr. Žarko Lazarević, mag. Stane Okoliš, Zorko Vičar, Ana Vičar, Marjetka Jene, mag. Nataša Konc Lorenzutti, Pavel Jamnik, Slavica Kožar, dr. Mitja Ferenc”
The Council of the Museum of Contemporary and Modern History of Slovenia also sent a protest statement
“Members of the Council of the public institution Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia learned the news about the decision of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia to abolish the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia and the Museum of Slovenian Independence and to merge both institutions into a new museum institution from the media. The Ministry of Culture has never informed the Council of the public institution Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia of the intention to merge the two museums, much less invited them to be part of a discussion of this idea and cooperation for the preliminary planning of organisational, business and professional issues related to the intention to create a new museum, a new public institution.
The abolition of the two museums and the creation of a new one is an important organisational and professional act in the field of safeguarding cultural heritage, shaping Slovenian identity and the identity of Slovenia and its people. In the conduct of the Ministry of Culture, we do not see a prior process whereby the Ministry would have previously conducted a dialogue with the various stakeholders (the Council and the Expert Council of the Public Institutions, the professional staff and the financial service) and would have sought the best strategic, organisational and business solutions for quality and successful work. The Ministry of Culture did not involve the professional public in the dialogue, nor the professional employees of the museums, excellent experts in the history of the 20th century, whose mission is to evaluate and present the cultural heritage and, in particular, the historical events that were decisive for Slovenia.
Members of the Council of the public institution – Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia read from the founding decision and heard from the public media that the funds for the operation of the new museum are made up of real estate and financial resources of the Museum of Contemporary History and the Museum of Slovenian Independence. We heard from the media that the Museum of Slovenian Independence does not have adequate exhibition and storage space, for which the founder sees the solution in a merger with the Museum of Contemporary History. We would like to point out that the Museum of Contemporary History has been operating for 75 years with a surplus of income over expenditure, has no outstanding liabilities to the state, suppliers and employees, and has never had liquidity problems. However, we also want to point out that, given the existing infrastructure and resources, the new museum will not be able to meet the expectations of the Ministry of Culture and, in particular, the public. With the new organisation, this issue will be even more acute. The reorganisation comes at a time of approval of annual programmes and budgets, and of the financial and operating reports for the previous year. The uncertainty is bound to make the museum’s work more difficult, both at a business and professional level.
The merger of the two museums was a political decision made by the Ministry of Culture. When interfering with the autonomy of institutions and, in particular, when reorganising and creating a new institution, the founder usually conducts a prior procedure to resolve legal, business, content, professional, organisational and spatial issues. In the present case, there was also no prior coordination of the establishment plan, which led to uncertainty and distress for the staff. It is unreasonable for the Ministry to have completely excluded staff and Board members from the aforementioned process. The alleged rationalisation will bring bureaucratic and staffing problems, which will make the work of both museums more difficult.
In the face of such swift and exclusionary action, we consider that the rights to information and communication and the right to dignity of the members of the Council of the Museum of Contemporary History, and in particular of the employees, have been violated.
The merger of the Museum of Contemporary History and the Museum of Slovenian Independence is not the result of prior expert analysis and discussion. We are convinced that if the Ministry of Culture were to lead a discussion on this topic, we would have all worked together constructively and cooperated nicely, as we follow the modern trends in the development of museums and the museum profession.
The members of the Council of the Museum of Contemporary History are surprised by the procedure and behaviour of the Ministry of Culture, which, in an uncoordinated manner and without a previous dialogue, is changing the programme priorities and the image of the institution, the identity and the brand of the Museum of Contemporary History, which is publicly recognised and has a high market value. The merger, which is not based on professional decisions, creates a practice of interfering with the professional independence and autonomy of museum institutions. The existing practice raises the concern that each succession of political power may follow similar or identical procedures.
The Ministry of Culture should create conditions for good professional and business functioning of public institutions in the field of cultural heritage protection, and we therefore rightly expect it to withdraw the decision on the establishment of the new museum in view of the numerous uncertainties and ambiguities and to find appropriate solutions in further dialogue with stakeholders.
Members of the Council of the Museum of Contemporary History:
Karla Oder, PhD, Chairperson
Tomaž Ivešić, PhD, Deputy Chairperson
Bojan Bogatec Končan,
Jurij Pavel Emeršič, MSc,
Irena Ribič, Curator”