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28 Dec 10

Sofia’s Homeless Museum Awaits Day of Glory

If the EU stumps up the money, Bulgarians may finally have the chance to enjoy a fascinating art collection that has wandered around for too long.

Boryana Dzhambazova

The 18th-century “golden” carriage was once used by the French Queen Marie-Antoinette and was taken to Bulgaria in 1893 as a gift for the wedding of King Ferdinand.

Now, it is parked in a hall in the centre of Sofia. Metres away, wrapped in plastic, stands Ferdinand’s gold-covered desk, believed to be a present from German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck.

The county’s first ever automobile, a Mercedes bought for the royal family around 1905, is meanwhile being restored.

These are just some of the over 120,000 treasures of Sofia Museum, designed to highlight the capital’s history and development since ancient times.

At some time, hopefully in 2013, crowds of local and foreign visitors will fill the museum - if it is open by then.

At the moment, the only visitors able to see the fascinating collection are a handful of restorers, historians and journalists.

Wrapped in plastic, lined up in shelves and boxes, the precious artifacts sit in storage, gathering dust and awaiting better times.

For years, lack of funds and an official unwillingness to solve the museum’s accommodation problem have doomed this impressive collection to remain hidden.

But now, the museum staff hopes that the EU will come up with the funds that will enable them to finally to open their doors.

EU to the rescue:

“We’re applying for EU aid to secure the money we need to finish the renovation works,” Boris Chilev, head of the Old Sofia city department, said.

In 1998, the city decided that the collection - homeless since its building was bombed in World War II - should find a permanent base in the now abandoned public baths.

Since then, the government had invested the meagre sum of 3.5 million lev [1.75 million euro] in restoring the building. Another 9 million lev [4.5 million euro] is needed to fully complete the renovation.

“Our hope is that Brussels will provide 6 million lev, while the remaining 3 million lev comes from the city,” Chilev said, adding that the application should be ready by February.

He admits that for years the city lacked the political will to find the funds that would enable the capital to have its own historical museum.

“I’m optimistic it will open soon, even though several generations of museum workers will have retired by the time that actually happens,” Mariana Marinova, an expert from the city’s Old Sofia department, said.

“We have a wonderful collection of valuable and unique items to show the public,” she added.

“Besides, the museum could be a starting point for several cultural ventures in Sofia,” Chilev said with excitement, describing some of the future projects, which include restoration labs, special arts events and other cultural activities targeting young people.

Marinova shares his enthusiasm for creating a modern-looking museum.  “The golden carriage will be placed here on the ground floor. Upstairs, there will be a Viennese-style cafeteria that will perfectly match the architecture and the building’s role as a museum,” Marinova explained.

But she warns that the precious items shouldn’t spend much longer in improper conditions. “This kind of improvised storage could be fatal to some of the items,” she mused, “but it’s the best we can do at the moment”.
Nomadic life:

While the start of the collection dates back to 1928, Sofia remains one of the few European capitals without its own permanent museum.

Since it began, the collection has gathered ceramic pottery dating back to Neolithic times, fragments of Roman sculpture, around 1,000 paintings, furniture items and possessions of the former royal family, and folk arts and crafts from the Ottoman era.

The exhibits combine to tell a colourful history of Sofia from ancient times to the 20th century, when it became a modern European capital.

The first exhibition opened in 1941 but lasted only three years, because the building in which it was housed was bombed in World War II.

Since then, the collection has moved around dozens of different locations but failed to find a permanent home.

Twelve years ago, the city chose the building of the former mineral baths, a cultural monument itself, to permanently house the collection.
Over the years, various items have been shown in other exhibitions but they represent only a fraction of the spectacular collection gathered over the decades.

Now, the museum staff hopes that Brussels will provide the money so that the exhibition can go on display in all its glory.

“Visitors will learn much more about how people’s lives in Sofia have changed over time,” Marinova said. “We have many items from their everyday life that just don’t exist anymore.”

Some of these curious and unfamiliar items paint an interesting portrait of life in the capital in the late 19th and early 20th century.

One is the so-called tête à tête, or couple’s, chair, a double-seated “s”-shaped chair that let unmarried couples to sit close to each other while respecting the code that they shouldn’t have physical contact.

Another is a sugar bowl - with a lock. “In the early 20th century, sugar was very expensive, so it had to be kept locked from children and maids,” Marinova explained.

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