The past should remain in the past

Nov 10, 2020

Good governance

An interview with Bojana Janeva Shemova, art historian and curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje, Interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator

Bojana Janeva Shemova is an art historian and curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje. Her interests extend to the fields of individual identity of the artist and social interactions as building blocks of society. Mrs Shemova also works as an independent curator, realizing and organizing many manifestations and exhibitions locally and internationally. In 2009 she curated the Macedonian participation at the Venice Biennale with the art project “Fifty-fifty” by the artist Goce Nanevski. Since 2012 she is a co-founder of “Ars Acta-Institute for Arts and Culture”, Skopje. She first specialized in Byzantine art history, and then, in 2010, completed her Master’s degree on “Art and Cultural Heritage, Cultural Policy, Management and Education” at the University of Maastricht. Currently, her work is mostly focused on the field of contemporary art and contemporary culture. Her passion for cultural heritage is derived from her professional experience as well as its application through the touristic tours she offers in Skopje. For the purpose of this interview, Mrs Shemova will reflect on the topic “Common or disputed heritage”.

What is heritage, how does it work and what does it mean for people with different backgrounds?

Bojana: Heritage, and in particular cultural heritage has a broad scope of meanings and levels of importance to different social, cultural and ethnic groups; and it can have a different interpretation depending on a personal approach. It has an enormous role in defining self-identification as well as on the conception of a national narrative, and in the creation of a sense of belonging, which has been very often used as a “tool” in political outwitting. The main mechanism of cultural heritage development is the social selection and the community’s way of passing it on from generation to generation.

Do you think that heritage institutions should be more inclusive or exclusive? Is it important to be clear about whose stories are being presented, by whom and for which purposes? Some practices point towards an inclusive approach through the restructuration of institutions and the fostering of supportive leadership. What do you think about this approach?

Bojana: Of course, there is notable world-wide reconsideration of the narratives and position stands that have been prevailing for quite some time. One of the most important examples is the re-conceptualisation of the MOMA New York collection by including more indigenous and black artists.

It seems as an important decision because everywhere in the world it is deemed as a starting position of the institutions’ cultural identity and political inclinations. I believe that there is a lot of work to be done in the field of restructuring the institutions towards more inclusive programs of underrepresented groups.

Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from Greece and Bulgaria and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?

Bojana: As a curator in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje, I will point out that in 2019 for the first time after a long hiatus; a collection from artists of the Thessaloniki Museum of Contemporary Art was finally presented in our museum. This event represented a great success since we had not seen works from Greek artists in a long time.

We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey these different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?

Bojana: It can be, but what is fundamental when dealing with cultural heritage is to take into consideration all of the aspects and stories behind it. Also, to be ready for controversial reactions, because one of the keycomponents of rethinking cultural heritage is that it takes time.

Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation?

Bojana: The contemporary art field is in its basis above and beyond the national agendas and historical connotations. My approach to these topics is firstly focused on the universal, human ideas, then on the national characteristics. This is why in the field of contemporary culture, very often there are examples of international manifestations that are celebrating universal qualities and values.

Dealing with cultural heritage means taking into consideration all aspects and stories behind a landmark and be ready for controversial reactions

What is the impact of Cultural Heritage on solving issues related with shared or contested history?

Bojana: Cultural heritage has enormous importance in the contested history among different countries. Especially in the countries that have overlapping history. One of the peculiar examples for me is the naming of the medieval King Marko, with different nouns Krale Marko by Macedonians, Krali Marko by the Bulgarians and Kraljevic Marko by the Serbians. We all believe that he was part of our history, which he was, because of the geo-political positions at that time.

How we choose to remember the past and how we choose to move forward are the critical issues of today. What does cultural heritage mean in different national and regional contexts? Who can claim it as theirs, and who decides how it is preserved, displayed, or restored? How to share cultural heritage?

Bojana: Nowadays, the importance of certain aspects of cultural heritage  depends a great deal on the political agendas of the country. We are witnessing changes in narratives, overlapping with the changes of Governments. This is obvious especially in the young countries like ours, who are still in the formative period of  their national pride and sense of belonging through the different parts of the oral and written heritage.

“What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them”, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree with this citation and why?

Bojana: Sadly, I do agree that this has been the case in the past and still is today. Maybe, it is finally time to rethink the possibilities of multilayered and open-minded views on history.

When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?

Bojana: I completely agree that the past should remain in the past, especially now when the whole world is infected with globalization and interconnectedness among people. However, in our context I believe that this process will go slowly and with difficulty, considering the social, economic and political strong agendas of the different sides.

Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience read the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?

Bojana: I do. Not only the realm of words, but also the visual imagery has a strong impact on this process.


The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interview and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.