Victor Petrov writes on his project with the Museum of the Socialist Past which includes working as a historical consultant.
During the past months, I have been working on a fascinating project to create a Museum of the Socialist Past in the city of Varna, Bulgaria. The project is envisioned and headed by a Columbia alumna and fellow Varna native, Dafina Nedelcheva, whose aim is to transform the biggest (but derelict) monument in the city into the country’s first dedicated museum to the socialist period. Other ex-communist countries already have such institutions, while Bulgarian popular discourse on the forty-five years of the regime continues to be sharply divided between a reflexive anti-communism and an almost unapologetic nostalgia. On a hill in Varna sits the Monument to Soviet-Bulgarian Friendship, an imposing concrete pile that has been crumbling since 1989. It sits among a park that also houses old tunnels and bunkers, ripe for a transformation into a major institution that can help present the fractious past to Bulgarian society. In re-purposing a regime monument into a museum, the project also intervenes in the national discussions of what to do with the architectural heritage of the period, by turning into a story about that same past. My role in the project has been that of a historical consultant of sorts, helping prepare
My role in the project has been that of a historical consultant of sorts, helping prepare the narrative and story we want to tell in the institution. The project has currently prepared a technical passport for the monument, a key first step towards repairing it and repurposing it into a museum, allowing it to move to the next stage – that is, to secure national and international funding for the large-scale works involved. The main institution will be the Bulgarian National Fund “Culture”, and its sub-program for “material culture heritage”. This program’s application will open after the current summer session (2nd May-20th June) of the Fund, and requires a full-scale project proposal that encompasses both an architectural and a historical narrative vision for the project. The other major financial sources that the project is targeting is the Ministry of Labour’s “Beautiful Bulgaria” project, which aims at improving the social environment in the country – these applications are on a rolling basis. Finally, there is also the European Commission’s EACEA initiative “European Remembrance”, which also renders help to such projects (again, on a rolling basis). All these applications require a comprehensive and well-conceived project.
As such, over the past few weeks, I have been carrying out a number of activities aimed at preparing the historical part of these candidacies in the summer of this year. Firstly, as the museum will house an oral archive of the regime, I have transcribed interviews I have carried out for my own dissertation in order to start the repository. More so, however, I have scheduled interviews with the surviving artists and architects that built the monument, to create an immediate archive connected to the project. I have also contacted a professor at Sofia University who works on oral histories of the regime, initiating a discussion that aims at the deposition of copies of her team’s interviews – in the hundreds – to the future repository. Such a seemingly small start will provide strong proof of the academic and social worth of the project in the grant applications, which is key for the future of the project. I have also popularised the project in talks with the academic community in Sofia, especially among members of Sofia University and the city’s Centre of Advanced Study. Gaining the support of the nation’s historical community is key in applying for national funding, especially in the face of local lobbies that would prefer to use the land the monument is built on for other purposes. I have scheduled a talk at the Bulgarian Academy of Science’s Institute of Ethnology for May, where I will present on the creation of a narrative of the socialist period, and discuss both the use of oral history in the project and how to narrate the story in a museum setting with members of the institute, which runs its own museum. This will be both valuable to my final preparation of the grant applications in the summer, and in checking the project’s ideas against the realities of running a museum in Bulgaria.
The next months will be key to this project and its future funding. My work hitherto has taught me the different aims one has as an academic and popular historian, and the story one wants to help tell a society. I have aimed to keep my “narration” – something we are very much aware of as problematic in graduate school – as open and multi-faceted as possible, in order to prevent the museum falling on one side of the previously mentioned popular narratives. More so, this helps garner a wider academic support in the country, where academics are also often bitterly divided over the topic. However, working on creating an archive has been tremendously rewarding, as much as it has been challenging, as it has been tangible proof of the museum’s future – in both the project’s eyes and, hopefully, in the eyes of national and international institutions.