SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnia's 124-year-old National Museum sealed its doors on Thursday because the divided country's authorities could not agree on how to fund it, and hundreds of people gathered in support of what they see as a cultural symbol.
The museum complex in the center of the Bosnian capital has outlived the collapse of Austro-Hungarian empire, two world wars and the break-up of Yugoslavia.
But it has been scraping by on scarce government handouts since the Balkan country's 1992-95 war ended, splitting Bosnia into two autonomous, rival regions.
"Disgrace, disgrace," shouted students who gathered in front of the museum, after its general manager Adnan Busuladzic symbolically nailed two wooden boards reading "Closed!" across its monumental gates.
Bosnia's weak central government does not include a culture ministry that would take care of the institutions treasuring the country's rich and centuries-old heritage, while the regions say that they are outside their respective authorities.
"We are seeking an institutional solution for the museum which can no longer stay open after its staff have received no wages and benefits for a year," Busuladzic said, as several activists symbolically chained themselves to a pole inside the museum and pledged to remain there until it re-opens.
The 1995 Dayton peace deal that ended the Bosnian war has failed to provide clear direction about the authority over seven major cultural institutions which contain the shared heritage of Bosnian Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats.
Each year, they have to apply for a $2 million grant from the central government, which is then shared among 20 museums, galleries and other institutions.
The National Museum, which opened in 1888 under the Austro-Hungarian empire, alone needs more than $900,000 to function, and Busuladzic said his staff would sue the state for negligence.
Hundreds of students and their professors came to the museum to protest against its closure.
"We won't let them destroy our cultural institutions," student leader Ahmed Nurkovic told the gathering.
Bosnia has been locked in political crisis for years by quarrels between rival Serb, Bosniak and Croat politicians and various power struggles within each ethnic group.
"Shame on our politicians for letting the museum, the most prestigious institution in this state which had not been closed for a single day during the war, to shut down now in peace time," said the museum's wartime manager Enver Imamovic.
(The story corrects headline to 124 instead of 200.)
Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Paul Casciato