The contest among several Bulgarian cities to be named one of Europe’s capitals of culture in 2019 is a strange one to observe, as each sets out its stall, boasting of its artistic, musical, theatrical and je ne sais quoi aesthetic and – well, cultural – advantages over its rivals.
Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia is upping the stakes with the promise of four new museums by the end of 2013. If the promise is fulfilled, that would see them open ahead of the country’s 2015 decision on which city is named European Capital of Culture 2019 (an honour and a year it will share with an Italian city, similarly yet to be decided).
Sofia seems to be determined to get there firstest with the mostest, as Confederate general Nathan Forrest almost certainly did not put it.
The city has quite a number of museums. These include the National History Museum in Boyana, the National Archaeological Museum, National Museum of Military History, the spectacular display of icons in the crypt of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Natural History Museum (though one has difficulty imagining stuffed wild animals impressing the culture vultures), the Earth and Man Museum, Ethnographic Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the Jewish Museum at the Sofia Synagogue, the national and fine arts galleries and a few more, including a Museum of Physical Education and Sport in Vassil Levski National Stadium. Then there is also the Museum of Socialist Art, opened in 2011.
Competition from at least one other city, Plovdiv, is stiff. Plovdiv mayor Ivan Totev has promised an underground museum of his city’s archaeological treasures, makes much of continuing archaeological discoveries, points to the EEA-funded wonderful work done at the Roman Stadium, has the advantage of the well-known Ancient Amphitheatre and, no slouch at a photo opportunity, recently got visiting musicians Fish and Anathema to pose in support of Plovdiv, European Capital of Culture 2019.
Veliko Turnovo points up the hill to Tsarevets fortress; Varna has the world’s oldest worked gold (a disputed claim, however, given that worked gold of reputedly greater antiquity has been found on the south-eastern coast of South Africa), a tradition of ballet and jazz festivals and its annual animated film festival; while other cities’ unique selling points are less clear, given their lesser budgets and access to national media.
So it was that Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova used the capital’s September 26 photo-op for the beginning of construction of the “Bulgarian Louvre” to promise the four new museums.
Arguably, premier among these would be the “Bulgarian Louvre” itself. Reportedly, Sofia chief architect Petar Dikov does not like the expression – the project’s official name is the National Museum Complex. At the ceremony, Fandukova told Culture Minister Veshdi Rashidov that she hoped that he would “come up with a nice name for it”, referring to the 27 million leva (about 13.5 million euro) EU-funded project.
If size matters, the “Bulgarian Louvre” will have an advantage. The project has been in the pipeline for some time. New York-based Bulgarian architect Yanko Apostolov won the competition in September 2010 to design it, after some minor uproar when the city first named an architect to do so without going through a competition process. Well-known Bulgarian construction firm Glavbolgarstroy is building it. When completed, with opening scheduled for June 2013, the 24 000 sq m will take in the National Gallery for Foreign Art and a building formerly used by the Sofia Technical University.
Speaking at the September 26 ceremony, Rashidov said that the complex would be the “home of the history of the Bulgarian state, but it will also be a world museum, as Bulgaria has a huge collection of Indian, southern African, Western European and other art”.
He then handed Glavbolgarstroy boss Simeon Peshov an outsized symbolic key.
It was then that Fandukova came up with her list – the other three museums would be the Sofia Museum of History, in the former Baths; an underground museum of the archaeological traces of ancient Serdica at the Largo; and the underground basilica and tombs beneath the sixth century church that is eponymous with Bulgaria’s capital.
In the museum business, of course, nothing is new. Nor, in effect, are these projects.
The Sofia Museum of History has been around as a project for several years, held up by funding troubles.
But besides its location, in the Baths opened in 1906, to a design by architect Petko Momchilov, the museum should be impressive whenever it opens. It is said to have more than 100 000 artifacts in its possession, including archaeological finds, coins, jewellery, ancient weapons, clothing, old cinema and theatre posters, a large collection of photographs and personal belongings of various prominent figures in Bulgaria’s 19th and 20th century history, including Tsar Ferdinand.
Funding for the completion of the Sofia Museum of History is reported to be coming from the EU’s Regional Development Operational Programme and the intended completion date is at the end of 2013.
Should the project be finally implemented, it would be part of an impressive precinct. In addition to the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque, the Sofia Synagogue – officially opened in 1909 – the somewhat more recent St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (inaugurated May 2006 and which is cheek-by-jowl with the remains of the western gate area of Serdika), already on view is the archaeological site next to the revamped Serdika metro railway station.
The site, which has become a popular gazing site for passersby and tourists who can watch archaeologists at work, has produced a number of finds from the first to the fourth centuries CE. Some of the finds suggest that some of the earliest settlers in the Roman era were military veterans in the fortress town. Serdika later achieved something of a heyday at the end of the third century CE when it became the capital of the Roman province of Dacia Interior, and some Sofians like to boast of emperor Constantine reportedly having said, in the fourth century, that “Serdika is my Rome”. However, the area has little to show from the period between the sixth and 11th centuries; some archaeologists believe that the city – which had its centre in the same place at the current Sofia – was razed by a major earthquake.
In turn, if Rashidov succeeds, the National History Museum would descend from the huge concrete slab it occupies on the slopes of Mount Vitosha to move into Tzum, the Central Department Store, the latter a building that is the legacy of communist remodeling of the Largo in the 1950s. Negotiations are underway on the move to Tzum, Rashidov told reporters, at least some of whom were skeptical, given the previous refusal by Tzum’s owner to comply with the scheme.
Fandukova also promised the opening of the underground archaeological museum at St Sofia church. The area beneath the grounds around the church is reportedly a treasure trove of the past of the city, and in recent years a select few visiting VIPs have been given glimpses of it.
The basilica that is familiar today dates from some time in the late fifth or early sixth centuries and is said to be on the site of two earlier churches. At the site, archaeologists have found a number of tombs, murals and floor mosaics, set for restoration and conservation prior to display in the underground museum.
As an aside, there was an omission – deliberate or not – from Fandukova’s list. That Museum of Socialist Art that opened in 2011, not without controversy, is meant to have a companion. According to an idea first mentioned publicly by President Rossen Plevneliev, there is also a proposal for a Museum of State Security. A more immediately political project than the idea of gazing on Bulgarian paintings, Roman pavements and the receptacles of the dusty bone fragments of long-gone Christians, it is an open question whether a State Security Museum would see its doors open before or after 2019 has come and gone; or perhaps, depending on who wins elections in 2013 and thereafter, whether it ever opens at all.
In the end, however, politics will probably influence the decision about which city Bulgaria names as its choice of European Capital of Culture 2019; indeed, it may all depend more on politics than on how many museums mayors can produce or how many orchestral divisions they can muster. The same year that a decision is made on which city will the capital of culture, 2015, is also a municipal election year. Whatever other concerns and priorities voters and political party bosses may have, a mayor’s chances may be affected by him or her being able to boast of winning the title for the town. Much depends on which comes first – the decision or the elections.
Looking forward to visiting the museums, though.