From Wishes to Wings – Renovation of the May 25 Museum Building

Lidija Kotur

Assistant of the director

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth… So they say…

However, it was observed closely. It was unique, representative, a pioneer in many ways. In the most beautiful place in Belgrade, a silhouette with spread wings has become synonymous for this part of the city and a distinctive architectural emphasis left by Mihailo Mika Janković when he designed the first purpose-built museum in Belgrade.

Years have passed and left deep scars on the body of the Museum of gifts building, later the May 25 Museum. First, it lost its fountain, which reached all the way to the Boulevard, because the land didn’t outstay displacements caused by works in Prokop. Shortly after, many pipes in the building also gave way, flooding the motor of the elevator, as well as the elevator shaft, and the elevator has remained at its first stop forever.

Changes in the state, in society, in the city… Shifts in policy, in cultural policy, in attitude towards architectural heritage… All that has been reflected in the Museum building. For a long time, it did not matter that its storage rooms were filled with priceless artifacts. It was more important to take into account the requirements of the superiors, however unskilled, even if it meant that the marble floor would be perforated, that the authenticity of the hall would be undermined, that the visitors’ queue for the toilets would get to the storage rooms’ doors, that the installations would be overloaded, and that the building itself would not last long. But it lasted until 2013.

At first, it sounded like a whisper, “I can’t” – and then like a howl. One after another, breakdowns occured. Water pipes broke, the ground beneath marble slabs opened, heating pipes cracked, the drains clogged, installation failed, and at one point it seemed that even the loyalty of its old acquaintances, the love of the people who spent their entire working lives in the Museum, the enthusiasm of its new, young hosts would not be able to heal the wounds that grew larger and more painful. The time to make a decision has come.

Should we pull out all the installations, rip out all damaged tiles, replace all the floors? Should we strip it naked to the concrete and bricks? Should we take away its soul, erase all the love, destroy its signature? The decision has been made.

We will save whatever can be saved. We will keep Mika’s architectural design and every possible installation, with a touch of modernization, but without mutilating it.

We started from HVAC installations. Mechanical engineers came to admire the filigree work of craftsmen who set the vents of large dimensions in 1961. They wondered how it was stitched together, soldered, isolated. We proudly showed them the “snail” of channels, intake and exhaust ducts, delighted that we can see and touch something that had been invisible for half a century.

When, in the substation, lights on the control panel shone, when fans and chambers started to churn, when the system heating-cooling-ventilation started, we knew we were on the right track. But it didn’t mean much to all the cultural goods kept in this building, and it meant even less to the visitors, who still couldn’t see it in its true splendour.

One more decision has been made. We will fix the interior, as well. According to Mika’s project in every detail. We will remove the barriers previously set without a lot of thinking and arguments; we will strip the black curtains from the last, technical floor; we will fix the marble, replace the old upholstery in the new movie theatre hall with the same pattern; we will fix the pipes; we will replace the old wiring, fix the elevator! We will also fix the roof and replace the old black roof insulation with a light-coloured one to make our museum, viewed from above, look like a seagull, a bird in flight.

At one point it seemed that the May 25 Museum building did not believe us. It has long ceased to believe, because it got used to being either forgotten or bypassed. It seemed to us that it sadly watched us leaving and thought we would never return again.

The works in the building interior proceeded slowly, step by step. As if the building complained to them, the craftsmen spoke softly, stepped silently, knocked carefully, dismantled timidly. Nobody knows better than a craftsman, that a building has a soul, that it feels pain. It is far more than just a bunch of building materials, bricks, concrete, and iron. Someone made drawings, erased them, re-drew them, did calculations, and tore the sketches, having them done once again on a tracing paper with India ink. Every craftsman knows that every building has its own story. And that its construction is a story for itself. And this building has its own stories: the story of Mika Janković, the stories of its builders, the story of the city where the building lives, the story of Josip Broz, the stories of hundreds of people who worked there, the stories of hundreds of thousands of people who passed through the building. It would be enough if each of them left a single word in there, to make its wings even more flexed and spread, leading it to some new stories and new people.

With that in mind, wanting to leave it to the future generations in the same state, non-desecrated, we enhanced the interior in the best way we could, but without violating its original appearance. The greatest innovation is the modern lighting, in accordance with the requirements of museology, and a modern fire alarm system. That is our legacy. Everything else, materialization, colours, dimensions, was dictated by the May 25 Museum building.

We just had to make its wishes come true.


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