A museum is a place where one should "lose one's head," architect Renzo Piano said. Whether Sofia's museums will make you lose your head is debatable. The exhibits, captions, and even the museum shops of most of them have changed little in the past 40 years, and audio-guides, multimedia, captivating captions and quality souvenirs, let alone proper publicity, are still novelties.
However, this should not put you off exploring Sofia's museums. Old-fashioned most of them might be, but they still offer you the precious opportunity of looking a Communist dictator in the eye and of learning more about the ancient and more recent history of Bulgaria and its capital.
This museum has one of the most imposing locations of all: in the former residence of dictator Todor Zhivkov in the tony Boyana neighbourhood. Its dim halls are filled with millennia-old artefacts, gold treasures such as that from Panagyurishte (pictured above), and traces of the glory of mediaeval Bulgaria. The museum also has an intriguing collection from the National Revival period, if old icons and personal items of revolutionaries are your thing. Clothes and a lot of paraphernalia represent the so-called Third Bulgarian Kingdom that existed between 1878 and 1944, including the first Bulgarian Constitution.
The outdated captions reeking with over-the-top patriotism spoil the experience, but the combination of the beautiful Mount Vitosha rising above the building, the exemplary architecture from the so-called Mature Socialism period and the diverse artefacts are definitely worth the while.
The National History Museum is at 16 Vitoshko Lale St, Boyana neighbourhood.
One of Sofia's oldest museums is housed in a building fit for its age: a 15th century mosque. Created in 1892 with the aim of collecting the archaeological finds of newly-independent Bulgaria, the museum was much needed, as treasure hunting was rampant and proper archaeological research was still unheard of in the Bulgarian lands. Today the museum is part of the Archaeological Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and has gathered together an interesting exhibition that includes ancient Thracian weapons, Roman sarcophagi and statues, and mediaeval murals. The most exciting part of it is the treasure room. An array of ancient finds fill its display cases, and the fact that they are made of gold is surpassed by their beauty and historical importance. Probably the most fascinating of them are the breathtaking 12-kg gold Valchitran Treasure made at the time of the Trojan War, the gold mask said to be of the Thracian King Teres and the bronze portrait of a man identified as the Thracian King Seuthes.
The Archaeology Museum is at 2 Saborna St.
Museum of Socialist Art
A controversial project that opened in 2011, the Museum of Socialist Art is dedicated to paintings and sculptures created between 1944 and 1989. Where is the controversy? There is a complete lack of proper background and explanation of this period of recent Bulgarian history, of how the Communist regime interacted with artists and how the artists coped with the severely curtailed artistic freedom they had at that time. The visitor is limited to the interesting, but hardly enlightening experience of walking among the chunky busts of Lenin and local Communist dictators Georgi Dimitrov and Todor Zhivkov, and happy workers as allegorical figures representing the triumph of Communism in staggeringly Cubist manner. Amidst all of these heroes and heroines of a bygone era stands the five-pointed red star that used to adorn the former building of the Party House in Sofia.
The Museum of Socialist Art is at 7 Lachezar Stanchev St.
Located in a second-floor room in the Sofia Central Synagogue, the museum was founded in 1992 and based on an earlier museum dedicated solely to the rescue of Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust in 1943. This goes a step further, and retells via documents, photographs and artefacts the long history of the Jewish presence in the Bulgarian lands that started as early as the 2nd century CE.
The entrance ticket includes a talk in English or Hebrew.
The Jewish Museum is at 16 Ekzarch Yosif St, and entry is via the Sofia Central Synagogue. Closed on Jewish holidays.
This museum dedicated to the glorious past of the Bulgarian army was founded in 1914, a year after Bulgaria was dramatically defeated in the Second Balkan War and a year before it entered the Great War, which it would lose as well. The exhibition changed site several times before settling down on the fringe of central Sofia, near the Military Academy.
Visiting the museum is for you if you fancy big guns. Heavy artillery, tanks, choppers and planes dot the museum's garden as, quite logically, weapons from the Cold War outnumber the rest. The exhibition inside the museum is more diverse, stretching from the ancient Thracians and mediaeval Bulgaria to the revolutionary movement of the 19th century, including a rather unusual exhibit: a lock of Vasil Levski's hair. The rest covers Bulgaria's military campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries. The section on the Cold War is a favourite with male Bulgarian visitors, who spend a long time there remembering their compulsory military service. The visit is complemented by military marches booming from loudspeakers.
The National Military History Museum is at 19 Cherkovna St.
Fossils, minerals and stuffed animals: the Natural History Museum has everything required of such an institution. Founded in 1889 by King Ferdinand, a passionate nature lover and butterfly collector, the museum has over 1,000,000 exhibits (not all of them on display, of course). Some of the most exciting items are the largest ammonite ever found in Bulgaria, one of the last pure-blood European bisons that used to live on the continent and a 2-metre high bear from the Rila mountains that, in 1937, won a gold medal for the largest animal of its kind at an international hunting exhibition in Berlin.
The Museum of Natural History is at 1 Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd.
Until recently, the Museum of History of Sofia was a curiosity: it was founded in 1928, yet few people had seen its collection as the museum lacked proper exhibition premises. The museum is now in one of the most beautiful buildings in Sofia, the long disused Central Baths dating from the early 20th century. New and anxious to stay up to date with the times, this museum is fresh and packed with events. The exhibits in the beautiful halls range from the prehistory of what would become Sofia (including the gold cup of the Kazichene Treasure) to the marvellous remains from the 19th-20th centuries. The most interesting exhibits include the so-called Gilt Chariot in Louis XVI style, a desk sent as a present by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to Bulgarian King Ferdinand I and a collection of fine clothes and expensive furniture.
The Museum of History of Sofia is at 1 Banski Sq.
Interior Ministry Museum
The museum of the Bulgarian Interior Ministry is an enigma. It has a place in the memories of generations of Sofianites because of its strange and sometimes overtly morbid exhibitions, like the displays dedicated to the dangers of drugs (with an emphasis on marijuana) and of some of the most notorious assassinations in Bulgaria (like the still unsolved 1996 murder of former Prime Minister Andrey Lukanov).
Under Communism, the museum, located in a beautiful 1912 house just behind the Sofia Court on Vitosha Boulevard, used to be called Museum of Revolutionary Vigilance. It contained a stuffed Communist-era border guards' dog that excelled in mauling escapees as well as small radio receivers confiscated because they were tuned in to Radio Free Europe. School kids were brought here in groups to be told how bad the West was and how heroic the Communist Bulgaria People's Militia were. Well, that has changed.
If you manage to enter today, which is doubtful as the museum has odd opening hours, you will find not weapons, uniforms, traces of former crimes or packets of lethal marijuana, but something as innocent as an exhibition of drawings by refugee children.
What happened? Budget issues, is the official answer. Lack of money has forced the officers-cum-curators to pack the exhibits away in the storerooms, filling the now empty halls of the museum with temporary exhibitions that have only a passing connection with the Interior Ministry.
During the 27 years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall there have been various initiatives to turn the building into a museum of Communism. Nothing has happened as even the most outspoken "democratic" ministers backed down on their pledges.
The Interior Ministry Museum is at 30 Lavele St.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.