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Blog Image 15 June 2021

The Museum of Socialist Art in Bulgaria

The location of a museum can reveal quite a bit about the image it wants to project: prestige locations, like Fifth Avenue, suggest that the collection is highly established. A sleeker location near commercial galleries associates the museum with younger, contemporary practices.

Then there’s The Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, Bulgaria. It’s crammed between the Bulgarian equivalent of the DMV, a relic of the communist era, and a modern office building emblazoned with the name of a major pharmacy company. The location is appropriate—Bulgaria’s only museum dedicated to displaying works of Socialist realism is literally stuck between the communist past and the capitalist present.

The Museum of Socialist Art is divided into two sections. The interior exhibition space features a mix of Socialist realist works on canvas, and propaganda from Bulgaria and other communist countries. Outside, a large sculpture park displays communist-era statues from around the country. During communism, these statues were ubiquitous in Bulgaria. Most towns and cities, regardless of size, commissioned monuments to communist icons like Lenin and Todor Zhivkov, the country’s longtime dictator.

Before it even opened, the museum was mired in controversy. When the National Gallery, which runs the museum, first announced the project, it planned to call it The Museum of Totalitarian Art. After a pressure campaign from pro-communist politicians, “Totalitarian” was replaced with the more neutral, “Socialist” designation. The museum finally opened in 2011, on the anniversary of the Communist takeover in 1944.

The chosen date made clear that the museum was far from a straightforward endeavor. Despite its original name, The Museum of Socialist Art would take a fairly neutral approach to memorializing Bulgaria’s time under communism. But its very existence was tinged with a hint of nostalgia for the former regime.

That nostalgia is rooted in Bulgaria’s strong alliance with the Soviet Union, and in the country’s halting, traumatizing process of decommunization. Bulgaria welcomed the arrival of Soviet troops during World War II and is widely considered to have been the USSR’s closest ally in the region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Bulgaria struggled to reinvent itself. Poverty was endemic and unemployment spiraled out of control.

Lustration, the process of purging officials of the communist party from government roles, which was commonplace in other countries in the region, never occurred in Bulgaria. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that Bulgaria made its first meaningful efforts to separate itself from its communist past by publicly disclosing the files of the secret police.

Still, like many places in the former communist world, there are two parallel realities in Bulgaria. One forcefully divorces itself from communism, seeing decommunization as a process of movement away from the country’s dark history. The other reality, usually held by the older generation, sees the decline of the state and privatization as evidence of a broader decline that began in 1989. When The Museum of Socialist Art opened, it was tasked with bridging this gap—appealing to both those that saw communism as a moral blight on Bulgaria’s record and to a generation nostalgic for a failed state.

There’s no clear curatorial agenda in the sculpture park. That’s intentional, according to Elitsa Terzieva, a curator at the National Gallery. The strong emotions that surrounded the museum’s early days forced the curators to avoid any approach that could be misconstrued as partisan. They instead took a utilitarian approach to displaying the sculptures, scattering them so that they could easily be viewed from every angle. By foregrounding the works’ formal elements and avoiding replicating the structural elements that gave the works power in their initial locations, the curators effectively neutered the political value of the sculptures.

”The perception is different now,” says Elitsa Terzieva. “Now we can see them just as artworks, but they used to be so much more.”

Bulgaria is far from the only post-communist country to relegate its monuments to a sculpture park. In fact, when the museum opened, many criticized the move as long overdue. At that point, similar sites existed in Hungary, Lithuania, Moscow, and the Czech Republic. All of these monument parks serve a similar purpose: to be a receptacle for communist statues from around the country and to neutralize the works by displaying them together. What makes Bulgaria’s sculpture park unique is that it is the country’s only museum dedicated to objects from the communist era. Almost by accident, The Museum of Socialist Art became Bulgaria’s de-facto museum of communist history.

As a result, the Museum of Socialist Art is a curious example of how a museum can help establish a national historical narrative while preserving and neutralizing controversial artifacts. When protests against Confederate monuments in the American South reemerged and gained traction in 2017, some writers suggested using post-communist monument parks as a framework for managing the relics of the Confederacy. Like Bulgarians with a bust of Lenin, Americans decided that a statue of Robert E. Lee no longer belonged in the public space because it amounted to a tacit endorsement of that ideology. And, like many statues of the communist era, these Confederate monuments had little artistic value—most were fashioned out of cheap metal and produced quickly.

Collectively, however, these Confederate statues bore significant historical value. Displayed together, these statues would begin to resemble the works at the Museum of Socialist Art. They would be reminders of atrocities of a previous era, but not active symbols of oppression. Of course, a museum dedicated to Confederate monuments could also become a site of nostalgia for those wishing to revive the past. It’s here that the Museum of Socialist Art offers a truly unique framework. By allowing post-communist nostalgia to coexist with reminders of the damage of communism, the Museum of Socialist art contains those sentiments within the walls of the museum and neutralizes the ideology through the collective impotency of the works.

Terzieva puts it more succinctly: “It’s important to confront history,” she says. “To not neglect the parts of it that we don’t want to remember.”

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