Introducing the exhibit

©National Museum of Slovenia -Irina Bokova during the inauguration of the travel exhibit

"The Balkans is a place of the imagination, this was the lesson we all took from Maria Todorova’s groundbreaking 1997 work, Imagining the Balkans. It is also a region that is reinventing itself every day, through exchanges, dialogue and interaction at all levels." wrote Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO in her foreword of the catalogue of the Travelling exhibit “Imagining the Balkans. Identities and Memory in the long 19th century” "

Imagining Critically

© 2009 University of Illinois Board of Trustees - Maria Todorova

Professor Maria Todorova
Gutgsell Professor of History University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Any representation is the work of the imagination as it processes reality. Different imaginings and their representations are no less real as shapers and creators of reality. Historical knowledge, which itself molds the present, is one such powerful tool formed by the accumulation of historical memories. It is, in the end, a more or less carefully and critically constructed collective memory. Modern historical knowledge, as we know it, was shaped in the nineteenth century and has been intimately linked with the formation of nationstates. So have its most important pedagogical and propaganda supports: national education, national museums and the media.

It is thus felicitous that this exhibition is dedicated to the long nineteenth century. This is the century of the most momentous political changes in the Balkans. Situated in the interstices between three empires, the region was directly ruled by two of them, the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, with a direct influence and partial rule by the Romanovs. With the First World War, these three empires fell apart, and the carving out of national borders started in the Balkans at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was practically completed by the end of the period, with only minor subsequent alterations. Indeed, the nation-state comes to the fore as the prototypical institutional embodiment of political modernity.

Maria Todorova, Imaginaire des Balkans, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, collection « En temps & lieux », 2011

It is the century of the deep social transformations that occurred with the advent of modernity, defined loosely as the compendium of traits such as industrialization, urbanization, and the emergence of a market-industrial economy; the growth of centralizing and unifying state institutions and bureaucratization; the development of the modern political party system and mass participation; the secularization of political and social authority and different models of popular rule. It is the century of the ambitious and optimistic construction and consolidation of the nationstate and national identities, of the major ideologies that shaped this process, of projects and programs dealing with institution building and the challenges posed by imperial legacies and minority problems, and the reflection of these processes in the sciences, literature and the arts.

The great irony is that this century that produced the great national cleavages, leading to often bloody divisions and exclusiveness, buttressed by ideologies of uniqueness and differentiation, created in fact an even greater homogeneity. The competing merchant classes shared the same ways of life, in terms of furniture, food, fashion and tastes; the hostile armies, clad in similar uniforms, killed each other with the same weapons; the conflicting histories supported by maps arguing for control of the same territories were often printed in the same publishing houses, and were structured along identical lines of reasoning and legitimacy; even as they were totally opposed to each other and were aiming at creating different and opposing national identities, school curricula, textbooks, literary genres and tropes, national heroes, symbols and celebration displayed remarkable commonalities. National archives, libraries and museums erected to preserve the distinctiveness and exceptionality of their respective historical heritage, and to illustrate their alleged superiority followed a similar arrangement and layout.

Maria Todorova, Imaginaire des Balkans, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, collection « En temps & lieux », 2011

It is thus doubly welcome that it is precisely one of these institutions – the national museum, meant from its inception to preserve national history behind sacred walls – that is opening its collections for simultaneous scrutiny. In a sublime gesture of self-deconstruction, national museums from practically all Balkan countries are coming together and displaying artifacts from their collections in an attempt to construct a common long nineteenth century. One of the palpable results of this exhibition is not only to show the common features and processes, shared memories and interactions between the peoples of South-Eastern Europe, but to also suggest to what extent the Balkans partook in similar trajectories typical for the whole continent.

I am deeply honoured that “Imagining the Balkans,” in which I tried to juxtapose different imagining of the region and analyze their roots and motivations, has inspired this exhibition. Even reflexive scholarship, which I privileged as closest to the unattainable ideal of objectivity, has to be constantly renewed and readjusted. This exhibition is an example of such renewal, striving to adjust national institutions to the new world of interregional and transregional collaboration, mutual understanding, tolerance and peace.

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