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Helen Watkins Bulgaria Report

Cultural Heritage Interpretation and Sustainable Tourism in Bulgaria
22nd-29th June 2014
Helen Watkins, Glasgow Museums

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The 4am rendezvous at was tough but we bonded over coffee at horribly-early-o-clock in the departure lounge at Edinburgh airport, bleary-eyed but excited about our upcoming adventure. There were six of us, all involved in the Scottish heritage and culture sector. We were heading to Bulgaria, a country about which we each admitted we knew virtually nothing. Our visit was part of a scheme enabling cultural heritage professionals from across Scotland to visit other European countries, funded by the European Commission’s Leonardo da Vinci programme and organised by ARCH network. ARCH works in liaison with local partner organisations, in our case the Devetaki Plateau Association in Bulgaria, and Velis Chilingirova was our very excellent local guide.

I work at Glasgow Museums where I am the Research Manager for history, working with the team of curators covering history, archaeology and World Cultures and also with external researchers and students using our collections. I was initially drawn to this trip by the material culture and the opportunity to visit museums and archaeological sites, curious about the interpretive methods used and how Bulgarian museums work with their collections. Interestingly, though, I think what I took away with me was a far greater fascination with Bulgaria’s intangible heritage, folk culture and the ways in which this is preserved and shared. I felt I learned as much from the events we went to and the guest houses we stayed at as from the formal heritage sites.

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Eli Petrovi at Bozhenski Chiflik guest house


Historic landscapes

Situated in southeast Europe, Bulgaria is bordered by Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Romania. It is in a region where Europe’s earliest civilisations flourished and has been home to Thracians, Greeks and Romans, Slavs and Bulgars, leaving it with a rich cultural heritage and abundance of archaeological sites.

Walking around Sofia on our first day, we saw the wealth of historic sites around which the contemporary city grew up. The centre of Sofia is a designated archaeological reserve, with the remains of ancient Serdica, one of the earliest fortified settlements in the Balkan Peninsula, lying under its core. The best access to Serdican remains is in an underpass by the metro. Here the eastern gate of the Roman city has been partially restored and it is even possible to walk on a stretch of sixth-century paved street.

A survey for a hotel development uncovered evidence of vast Roman amphitheatre just outside Serdica’s city wall. Second in size only to the Coliseum in Rome, it had capacity for 25,000 spectators. Due to the financial responsibilities resulting from such discoveries development projects often stall, but in this case the company capitalised on the find and preserved the remains, incorporating them into the ground floor of the Arena di Serdica hotel as an archaeological exhibit accessible to the public. It seemed slightly strange to see the space set up to accommodate events like corporate drinks receptions, but perhaps no stranger than it having been a place to watch gladiators fighting animals.

We visited the St George Rotunda, the oldest orthodox church in Bulgaria, and glimpsed an Orthodox service in progress, then went to the early Byzantine church of St Sophia, from which the city later took its name. There are numerous thermal springs around the city and we cautiously sipped warm and slightly sulphurous water from one. The nearby Central Baths, once derelict but now beautifully restored, is planned to become a new museum of Sofia.

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That afternoon we drove to Plovdiv, formerly a Roman city named Philippopolis after Philip II of Macedon. A second-century Roman theatre was discovered by chance in the 1970s and has been preserved and brought back into use as a venue for musical and theatrical performances. The ancient stadium dating from Hadrian’s rule, which would have accommodated up to 30,000 spectators for sporting events, is only partially excavated as most of it lies beneath the Plovdiv’s main shopping street. The city also contains baths and mosques from the Ottoman period and a well-preserved architectural quarter from the National Revival period. Bulgarian art and culture had been suppressed under centuries of Ottoman rule, but with the empire’s decline in the late C18th a strong Bulgarian National Revival developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Roman theatre at Plovdiv
Thracian archaeology is an important part of Bulgaria’s heritage and identity so it was exciting to visit a series of Thracian tombs: the Starosel Thracian complex, the Thracian tomb at Kazanlak and Golyama Kosmatka tomb. Golyama Kosmatka is the largest tomb in the Valley of the Thracian Kings and was not discovered until 2004. It is a three-chambered tomb in which a precious array of grave goods were found. Itis believed to be the tomb of Seuthes III, partly due to the resemblance of the bronze head found at the site to the likeness of Seuthes on coins.

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The Kazanlak tomb is one of Bulgaria’s nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, in recognition of the quality of the frescos it contains. To help preserve this highly important site, a full size replica was created.

There is a concentration of tumuli in the area, most of which have not been excavated, so other important remains may still lie undiscovered. The Bulgarian Academy of Science’s Institute of Archaeology is the national coordinator of all archaeological excavation and research. Its museum in Sofia contains some remarkable finds from sites across Bulgaria, including riches from the Thracian tombs, such as a gold oak wreath, gold burial mask, bronze helmet and greaves, iron sword, gaming pieces and remains of a horse harness, and the fine bronze head with copper eye lashes.
Bronze head compared with Seuthes III coin

This raises the thorny issue and subject of much debate about whether the most appropriate place for such artefacts is in a capital city, or in museums more local to the find sites. The Institute of Archaeology funds and oversees excavations and it is not surprising that as a national museum it would want to show the finest objects from across the country. Obviously objects of such value should be stored and displayed in suitable conditions, but these objects are also an important part of local and regional heritage and could play a valuable role attracting tourists beyond the capital.

Objects on open display … and on open hillsides!

In the Iskra History Museum in Kazanlak, and to an extent elsewhere, I was astonished to see the way that many objects were displayed in very physically accessible ways. Fragile ceramics and ferocious-looking edged weapons were presented uncased on low plinths in a way that would not seem thinkable in British museums (though elsewhere in the museum the high value grave goods from the Golyama Kosmatka tomb were securely cased to meet security standards required by the Ministry of Culture). Museum staff did not experience problems with damage, injury or theft – Bulgarian visitors must be much better behaved than British ones!

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Displays at Iskra History Museum

In a recent gallery redisplay at Glasgow Museums we exhibited one object on a similar two-tier plinth, but before the gallery opened, fearing that the plinth just looked too inviting as a step, we added a barrier to make it unambiguous that that area was out of bounds. It is interesting therefore to see places where this does not crop up as an issue.

There is a lot of discussion in Britain about whether ‘psychological barriers’ are sufficient to discourage visitors from touching objects. We do find damage a recurring problem in some of our venues and it is often hard to strike a balance between access and preservation. In certain contexts, such as handling kits or larger artefacts like trains that we allow people to climb onto, we do encourage visitors to engage with objects physically, but perhaps we are guilty of sending confusing messages sometimes about when it is appropriate to touch items and when it is not.

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I was aware of there generally being less digital interpretation than in many British museums. Much as we enjoyed the exhibits at Troyan Museum of Folk Crafts and Applied Arts, I think the whole group were especially taken by the museum’s very effective use of a handheld device to project film clips onto a wall. Too often our galleries get cluttered with AV technology that takes up display space, breaks down or rapidly falls out of date. More convenient for us in many situations would be for staff to have this ability to project clips onto any available surface in this way.

At the Festival of Herbs, Mountains and Tourism held each June at the Beklemeto Pass in the Balkan Mountains, we spoke with one of the festival compères, who also works at Troyan Museum. When we admired her dress she commented that it was from the museum and showed me a pendent she was wearing with it, complete with accession number on the back.

Though this might be the stuff of nightmares for collections management or conservation teams at home, here was a museum professional who was very relaxed with the idea of taking certain objects out of the museum and using them (and even sitting on the grass in them!). The dress, I assume, was not unique, fragile or irreplaceable, and may have been part of their stock of costumes available to visitors for dressing up. Those schooled in strict rules about object handing might have found this troubling, but it felt quite refreshing. Perhaps there is something to be said for seeing objects in different physical contexts and witnessing them being used for the purposes for which they were originally intended.

Representing national identity

We became aware that the history presented to us related almost exclusively to two periods in Bulgaria’s history. Archaeological galleries explored the country’s ancient Thracian, Hellenistic and Roman past. We also saw a number of ethnographic galleries and exhibits, including those in Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum, Hisarya Archaeological Museum, Iskra History Museum and Troyan Museum. Using domestic artefacts, agricultural and industrial implements, clothing, decorative arts, religious objects and items relating to annual festivals and celebrations, they presented an engaging story about daily life and cultural practices, but one consistently focused on the Bulgarian National Revival period.

Similar themes of national identity also emerged in cultural spaces outside of museums, even in a converted barn in Bozhenski Chiflik guest house in Subotkovtsi. Eli and Iliya Petrovi have developed an eco-tourism farm where they keep cows, sheep, bees and horses. They have a small ethnographic collection and offer a range of workshops and activities focusing on Bulgarian crafts and traditions, from making traditional Bulgarian bread, yarn making and dyeing, learning about farming and the importance of bees, to folk songs, dancing, riding and archery. Their mission is to promote and preserve Bulgarian natural and cultural heritage, and particularly to promote young people’s interest in the past through Bulgarian lifestyle and traditions.

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Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party

The Freedom Monument on the Shipka Pass commemorates those who died in the battles of the Russo-Turkish War during 1877-8. This was a highly significant moment in Bulgarian history and in the national psyche as it marked the country’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Standing by this monument we could make out the slightly hazy image of a second mountain-top monument in the distance – the Buzludzha Monument, officially named the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

After the Second World War the Communist Party took power and Bulgaria became a socialist state. The building was completed in 1981 but abandoned just a few years later when communism fell and Bulgaria became a democracy. Now structurally unsound, this monument to Communism is boarded up and no one goes there. Its rather ghostly presence seemed to mirror the lack of discussion of the communist era in any of the sites we visited. Museums, it appears, don’t go there either.

Of course it may be that museums we didn’t visit do tackle this period, but in the general telling of Bulgaria’s history in the museums that we saw, this was a chapter conspicuous by its absence. It may not be a period Bulgaria particularly wants to celebrate or promote, but it remains a part of its story nonetheless. I suspect that if Bulgarian institutions were willing to address the communist period it could become a draw for tourism, particularly given that some 150 or so communist monuments were erected across Bulgaria. It will be interesting to see in the future how Bulgarian museums choose to tell their more recent history.

Making intangible heritage tangible

That said, some museums are doing things differently. A fascinating example of trying to make intangible heritage tangible for visitors is the Gabrovo Museum of Humour and Satire. The museum has found ingenious ways to take abstract ideas, anecdotes and a limited amount of material culture to create a gallery focusing on local Gabrovian humour, gently poking fun at themselves for their reputation for being stingy. It is an impressive achievement to make humour ‘material’ in this way, not to mention to maintain a programme of temporary display changes every month in an organisation of just twenty staff, a turnaround unimaginable in most UK institutions.

Museums face an interesting problem with intangible heritage. They may be familiar with collecting objects, but how to capture the skills, behaviours and traditions associated with those objects, which are often integral to understanding them? Here I reflect on attempts to make abstract things more tangible and on the importance of learning through doing.

Our hosts at the House of Traditions in the village of Staro Zhelezare in Hisarya municipality demonstrated spinning wool by hand using a distaff and spindle, as well as using a spinning wheel. A few of us had a go too, though I don’t think we necessarily impressed anyone with our abilities. They also showed us the purpose of the curious curved wooden objects included every ethnographic gallery we visited.

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These are palamarka, traditional agricultural implements used along with a sickle for harvesting grain. They fit over the fingers of the other hand to protect the wearer from the blade and the hooked end helps gather the bundle of the crop to be cut. Showing us how the two tools were used together by miming the action of harvesting reinforced for me how, in just a few seconds, demonstrating how an object is used can make it accessible and understandable, despite the absence of a shared language, in a way that an object itself often cannot.

This was a simple but effective technique because the gesture or action for using it is, in many ways, an integral part of this object. I wouldn’t have fully appreciated its use without seeing it in action.

That got me thinking about different ways we could use some of our museum objects. In Glasgow Museums we already make a significant number available for handling but there may be value in demonstrating and/or allowing visitors to try using a wider range of tools and equipment. For instance, there are rows of spinning wheels in store that, to my knowledge, have never been used and I suspect few have been exhibited since coming into the collection, so I’m curious whether it might be possible for one or two to be brought back into use.

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The final place we stayed was in Villi and Encho Gankovski’s Eco-Art guest house, located in the village of Drashkove Ployana close to the Central Balkan National Park. Encho, a potter, gave a demonstration of making ceramics by hand and on a potter’s wheel and we all had the opportunity to have a go. It was interesting recognising his work when we visited the National Exhibition of Crafts and Arts in Oreshak, which exhibits and sells contemporary crafts, and understanding the techniques he had used, having seen them at first hand.
Ally and Encho at the potter’s wheel

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Me attempting to carve

I found this kind of practical appreciation most marked during our visit to Tryavna. The town became the industrial centre of the region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and a key artistic centre, particularly for building, wood carving and icon painting. It is now a major tourist site with a large historic quarter, a well preserved National Revival town square and group of museums, including the only museum of Asian and African art in the Balkan Peninsula. The Director emphasised the importance of both historic and contemporary craftspeople. The museum has a strong relationship with current art and craft students and there is lots of emphasis on workshops and demonstrations in the public programme. In a similar way to the Etara Ethnographic Complex, an open-air museum representing typical Bulgarian Revival homes and industries, independent craftspeople rent premises on site in which they work, enabling visitors to see craftsmanship in practice.

We visited the museum of wood carving and icon painting, which may not have been a venue that I would have found so interesting had I not spent half an hour immediately before our visit attempting a carving of my own.

We were given a simple pattern of triangles to carve and although we enjoyed tackling something practical, I think we were all struck by how challenging it was to carve the pattern in anything resembling a neat or consistent way. This exercise made me much better able to appreciate the immense skill of master craftsmen whose work was shown in the museum.

There were lots of opportunities to dress up in traditional costume during the trip – Bozhenski Farm, Troyan Museum, Sevlievo medieval fortress at Hotalich. It was something actively encouraged, and not just for children. Our group were keen to try on costumes wherever the opportunity arose. As our hosts at each site helped people into their outfits it reinforced the fact that the ‘heritage’ here consists of far more than the physical garments. It involves an entire practice of dressing, from understanding the meanings attached to the colours, styles and fabrics, to knowledge of the ways of organising, positioning and securing each item to assemble the outfit correctly.

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Our weaving demonstrator, Jared, Bethan, Ally and Iliya in traditional dress

People would have struggled to put the items on correctly on their own. It was not always self evident how a headscarf should be tied or how jackets, belts and aprons should be layered. This is something best learned through being shown.

I am aware that there must be important regional differences in dress, though this is not something we explored in any detail. However, this regional distinctiveness did crop up in an amusing observation about a religious fresco. Troyan Monastery dates from the C16th and is known for its remarkable frescoes by Zahari Zograf, painted in 1847-9. The story goes that he lost out on a commission in Plovdiv, prompting him, in his depiction of the various categories of sinners in hell, to portray all the prostitutes in traditional Plovdiv dress – a slight against Plovdivians that may be beyond many visitors today but would have been obvious to anyone who knew how to interpret the geography of the costumes.

Customs and gestures of hospitality

In various places, including the guest houses and at least one museum, we were handed geranium leaves on arrival, and I noticed Velis’s mother doing the same when we visited her. Giving zdravets, a kind of wild geranium, is a longstanding Bulgarian tradition. Zdrave is the word for health and these plants symbolise health and wellbeing.

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Martenistas on a tree by Rozhdestvo Hristovo church

Another symbol of health and longevity that we came across were martenistas – small bands, bracelets or tokens made from red and white yarn. These are exchanged as gifts at the beginning of March to welcome Baba Marta, Grandmother March, and mark the arrival of spring. The custom is to wear them until the first storks arrive or the first blossom is seen, and then tie them to a branch. This is a tradition evidently alive and well in modern Bulgaria as we saw numerous martenistas on trees. The red thread symbolises life and the white purity. I also noticed red threads used elsewhere, including tassels tied to horses bridles. The red is traditionally thought to drive away evil and protect from illness.

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Bread, salt and herbs at the House of Traditions

The warmest welcome we received was at the House of Traditions. We were greeted by a group of around twenty woman and girls in traditional dress wearing garlands of flowers. They offered us bread and salt, which is a traditional way of welcoming visitors in Bulgaria and other Slavic regions. Velis led the way, showing us that we should tear a piece of bread, dip it in the salt and eat it.

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Being greeted at the House of the Traditions on St Enyo’s Day

We were fortunate to be there on 24th June, which is Eniovden, or the day St Enyo the patron saint of herbalists, and we felt very privileged to witness, and be included in, the ceremony marking this midsummer festival.

The healing properties of herbs were believed to be stronger than usual on this day and bathing in the morning dew (or at least walking barefoot in it, as we were encouraged to do) was traditional as it was also said to gain healing powers on St Enyo’s day.

A wreath of ‘seventy seven and a half’ herbs had been prepared. Although we couldn’t quite work out how you gather half a herb, in Bulgarian folklore there are seventy-seven illnesses, each with a herbal cure, plus the ‘half’, an unknown illness that had no name. A young girl was dressed in white robes and a red veil and carried by the older girls – symbolising the tradition of carrying a girl representing St Enyo’s bride to each well and spring around the village. The women sang, we all took it in turns to step through the wreath and then joined in the dancing too. Each of the girls, and each of us as well, were given a small posy of flowers, along with wishes and predictions about health, romance and future lives, so it will be interesting to see whose comes true!

Closing thoughts

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For me this image beautifully captures the fact that these young people are engaging in a very active way with their heritage. The day had been partly about showing a local custom to visitors, but it was also about passing that knowledge from one generation to another. These girls were wearing the costumes, participating in the dances, learning the rituals, absorbing the traditional knowledge, but they were absolutely embedded within their twenty-first century cultural context too, busy on their smart phones posting photos of the event online and friending us on facebook.

Bulgaria seems to have had real successful in not just keeping traditional crafts and customs alive but keeping them relevant too, and actively promoting them as the basis of cultural tourism. As a result of my experiences in Bulgaria I am keen to develop a better understanding of intangible cultural heritage and its relationship to the development of strong community identities. Where I see this having the most immediate impact on my work is in a collaboration some colleagues and I have been involved in with travelling Showpeople in Glasgow.

I leave with very good memories of my time in Bulgaria. I want to thank the Leonardo da Vinci programme for funding this trip, Sheila at ARCH for organising it, Velis and Ivo for sharing their fascinating country with us and making all the arrangements run so smoothly, and my fellow participants and all those we met along the way for making it such a fantastic experience.

I saw a lot, I learned a lot, I ate a lot and I laughed a lot – a winning combination!

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