What do you do with a load of monuments that celebrate a past you’d rather forget? You can haul them down and break them up for scrap perhaps. Or you can leave them where they are, a constant reminder of that troubled past. Or you can gather them up and put them in a museum; a museum that acknowledges and documents the past but doesn’t celebrate it.
Maybe too it would be a good idea to tuck that museum away on the outskirts of the city, in an unprepossessing area that otherwise is the domain of offices and shops? I don’t know if the authorities in Sofia deliberately made that latter decision. Maybe the location of the Socialist Art Museum was chosen simply because there was enough space there. But it certainly adds to the impression that these aren’t monuments to be celebrated, merely preserved.
Whatever the thinking behind it, this museum seems to me a good solution to the current debates about what to do with monuments that are ‘of their time’ and no longer relevant or appropriate to our modern understandings. One of the country’s ministers said at the time of the museum’s inauguration in 2011:
We are closing one page of the Bulgarian history and communism is going where it belongs – in the museum … Bulgaria has already shaken it off and is moving forward.Simeon Djankov, Finance Minister
Visiting the museum
We took the Metro three stops to the station named for G M Dimitrov, a Bulgarian politician of the 1930s and 40s who opposed both fascism and communism. There we emerged at a busy road junction surrounded by office blocks, apartments and the half-demolished blocks that I featured in my Sofia, City of Contrasts post. It was about a ten-minute walk from here through an area that seemed highly unlikely to house a museum. But it did! I’m sharing that walk plus our explorations of the museum’s grounds with Jo for a cheekily easy Monday Walk.
As you approach the utilitarian-looking building you are greeted by the red star that once flew above the Communist Party Headquarters in the city centre, and by an incongruous red carpet.
We paid our entry fee in the small shop / ticket office on one side of the building. But our main interest lay outside. There 77 statues and sculptures from the communist period are displayed in what the museum grandly calls a park, but I would term a large garden. Their proximity to each other in this relatively small space is appropriate I feel. It creates the definite impression that this is a museum rather than a regular arrangement of monuments in a park.
There are several statues of Lenin of course. However the large one that once stood in the city centre, facing the Party HQ’s red star, is absent. Our guide on the city walk a few days before had speculated that it could today be in a private collection somewhere. But I wonder if it has simply been destroyed, as many such statues were?
Stalin is here too, and Che Guevara, presumably because of the close ties between Cuba and the East European Communist-ruled countries.
There are also plenty of examples of typical socialist art celebrating workers, such as miners and farm workers.
And more surprisingly, a few pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in any present-day public location. Or I am overlooking some messages behind them?
We also had a look at the drawings and paintings on display in the museum, some of which reminded me of North Korea and its Dear Leaders. Luckily photography (without flash) was permitted here too. One poster described the work of Todor Tsonev, the only Bulgarian artist to have openly ridiculed and condemned the totalitarian system.
On our way out we spotted a few additional sculptures tucked away in a corner. I’m not sure if they were deliberately placed there or awaiting proper display. They certainly had no plinths or labels. But they were among the most appealing to me, although hard to photograph against the backdrop of this rather ugly building.
This museum won’t appeal to everyone (indeed we were the only visitors for most of our time here). Not everyone is as intrigued by the art of this period and style as I am! But it’s an important reminder of the country’s fairly recent past and a mark of how far it has come since 1989 when the Communist regime fell.
I last visited Sofia in September 2022 when all these photos were taken