In late May I was one of five lucky participants to be included in an exchange visit to Bulgaria. The trip, organised through Arch network and funded by Leonard Da Vinci foundation, was aimed at looking at cultural interpretation in the central region in Bulgaria, Stara Planina.
I had been recommended the trip by colleagues who had gone on previous excursions to other European countries, and I went with no preconceptions about the country. In fact my knowledge of Bulgaria was limited to a bit of guidebook reading and Eurovision watching (for ‘research’ purposes only, honestly!). So, when I landed in Sofia on 14 May everything was a new experience to me.
My personal objective for the trip was to meet Bulgarian museum professionals and compare their experiences, and overall sector, with our own in Scotland. I can authoritatively say that they share our passion for the heritage of their country – and culture is becoming increasingly more important as a business and a means of generating income.
The trip itself started in Sofia, where we visited the National Polytechnical Museum for a meeting and science demonstration aimed at school groups, using everyday household equipment. It was fascinating to see what was being done daily on limited budgets – no holding them back on the creativity front!
Other museums, as well as the Polytechnical museum, had embraced an European initiative called ‘Night of Museums’, where special exhibitions are put on overnight, with record numbers of visitors attending. Some museums chose to bring in special art experiences for the event while others, such as Gorna Oryahovitsa museum, displayed a specially created exhibition on local history for their predominantly local visitors (and covered the permanent exhibitions in doing so – creative thinking to counteract their lack of exhibition space!).
Our trip took us into the heart of Bulgaria, driving over the mountains via winding roads and tiny villages. Many of these villages were home to museums of their own local history and we were lucky to stop and explore on so many occasions. We were also taken to a number of secluded monasteries – such an integral part of Bulgaria’s history – to see how they portrayed the heritage surrounding them.
Another fascinating visit was to the Thracian tombs throughout the region – small, generally insignificant buildings house some of the greatest murals I’ve even seen. Golden wreaths and bronze heads have also been found in the tombs and these now reside in the National Museum in Sofia – however we were lucky enough to catch some of the artefacts in a touring exhibition at the nearby Iskra museum.
We also spoke with Bulgarian colleagues about the challenges they are experiencing day-to-day. Lack of funding within Bulgaria is a huge issue and, despite showing what amazing things could be done with on a restricted budget, a little more and the museums would be great. It truly makes you realise how lucky we are in Scotland to have heritage as such an integral part of our national culture.
I returned home exhausted. The following morning I glumly faced gale-force winds and torrential rain on my trudge to work (a poor comparison in my eyes to the Sofia sunshine the day before) to ply my colleagues with rose-flavoured sweets and stories. And…I had the reciprocal exchange visit to plan and look forward to too!
In early June I was joined at the National Museum of Scotland by ten Bulgarians, many from organisations I had visited myself weeks before. After being treated to some sterling Scottish hospitality (cake, of course!) they were introduced to the organisation and our work by colleagues from National Partnerships, Collections Management and a consultant from Jura Consultants, who had accompanied me on the exchange. Between us we were able to draw some interesting comparisons between the Scottish sector and their own native country, and show off our own fantastic museum (if I do say so myself!). The group move on to experience museums in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute and the Highlands before returning home. I hope that they enjoy their experience as much as I did mine.