HAPA: Harun Buljina on his work with War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo

In this post, HAPA recipient, Harun Buljina, discusses his work as a research assistant at

the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo. As part of this grant, he also organized a lecture at Columbia’s

Harriman Institute, coordinated the development of a mobile application for museum

visitors, and more generally prepared for the opening of the museum’s permanent location

in the city center. Before discussing these in depth, the post below also elaborates on the origins of the museum itself.


The War Childhood Museum is the brainchild of young Sarajevan author and

entrepreneur Jasminko Halilović. The idea originated as a crowdsourcing project in 2010,

with Jasminko collecting over 1,000 160-character reflections on “childhood in wartime”

from young adults who had, like him, grown up during the city’s infamous siege in the

1992-95 Bosnian War. Ultimately editing the contributions into a book in 2013, Halilović

decided to pursue the project further and work to establish the world’s first museum

dedicated to the experience of growing up during war. Since forming a small team in

February 2015, Jasminko and his collaborators have collected artifacts, documents, and

video testimonies. They have also begun organizing these into a nascent archive, as well as

showcasing them in a series of successful temporary exhibits around the country. In the

process, they have faced down local political obstructionism while drawing significant

grassroots support and international media attention. As someone who spent his early

childhood in besieged Sarajevo and contributed his own video testimony to the museum’s

growing collection, I am intimately aware of the museum’s social significance, and am

grateful for the HIA-supported opportunity to help contribute to its future success.

One of my main contributions in these initial weeks was to help organize a lecture

by Jasminko through Columbia’s Harriman Institute, co-sponsored by HIA and the

Department of History. This experience exposed me to a facet of academic life that I had not

previously encountered: the nuts and bolts of putting a together a public event. My work

here involved coordinating between Columbia and the museum team, creating and

distributing promotional materials, spreading the word to specific audiences through social

media, and ultimately introducing the talk with an overview of the museum’s historical

context. When October 12 th finally arrived, I was happy to see my efforts pay off; the

Harriman seminar room in the School of International and Public Affairs building was filled

to capacity, with a number of latecomers unfortunately forced to stand. I was particularly

pleased that the event had drawn a diverse crowd, including a number of distinguishable

groups I had specifically tried to reach out to: history graduate students, people in museum

studies, regional specialists, and a number of members of New York’s Bosnian-American

community. The lecture was also successful in identifying future opportunities and

potential collaborators for the museum team. One attendee, a consultant who had worked

with the 9/11 Memorial Museum, drew instructive parallels and offered her help in setting

up our own permanent exhibit. In a meeting with an interested professor, meanwhile, we

discussed ties to other innovative public history projects in southeast Europe.

Since returning to Sarajevo, I have been involved in coordinating the development of

a mobile application for museum visitors with a local software development firm. While I

do not have an extensive technical background myself, attending the meetings has helped

me to see what the conceptual and collaborative aspects of that career look like in practice.

It has also pushed me to further consider questions standing at the intersection of the

digital humanities and public history. For instance, in trying to decide how much of the

museum’s collection to make available through the application, we faced a tension between

making the museum accessible to a broader, international audience and still encouraging

users to visit the museum in person. The solution we ultimately reached will entail multiple

curated sub-collections, with mobile users able to access a free “short” tour of 50 of the

most popular museum objects and stories, while in person visitors will receive a code with

their ticket that unlocks a variety of longer and thematically organized tours. The beta

version of the app is set to become public with the opening of the museum itself on

December 15 th , but discussions about the nature and scope of potential future features,

such as eventually allowing users outside of Bosnia to reach out and contribute their own

experiences or testimonies to the museum’s collection, have already been intellectually

stimulating for other members of the museum team and for me as a historian.

Looking ahead, my work with the War Childhood Museum will both continue in a

similar vein and expand in certain new directions. Promotion of the museum continues,

including through a crowdfunding campaign to raise additional resources for our grand

opening, and I expect to stay involved in our work on the mobile application. As someone

with experience conducting archival research, I also look forward to participating in the

opening of the museum’s archive to researchers. At the moment, however, the primary

focus for the museum team as a whole is on our commitment to open the new permanent

location by our December 15 th deadline. This has involved tasks and challenges ranging

from the conceptual to the practical, including evaluating the physical state of the new

building, ensuring accessibility for the handicapped, and creating English language audio

guides for the individual items in the exhibit. Seeing the project steadily come to fruition,

particularly through Jasminko’s tremendous dedication and leadership, has been

immensely inspiring and rewarding, and I look forward to sharing our progress with the

rest of the Columbia history community once my HAPA comes to a close.

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