A visit to Sofia’s Socialist Art Museum
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
An excellent idea. I can think of a couple of other… things? people? that could safely be stowed away in a museum. 😉
Now you come to mention it, so can I 😆
We can’t rewrite or destroy history so why destroy the statues which signify that history – I think a museum is a good compromise but I’m not sure about that red carpet 🙂
I’m with you on the carpet, I have no idea what it was doing there unless maybe to steer people towards the ticket office which wasn’t obvious?
This is very interesting, Sarah. Good for you to visit and post about it. I like the Finance Minister’s straightforward statement. The information about Tsonev is chilling, a cautionary warning of what can happen.
I liked that statement too. Not hiding from the past but distancing themselves from it. One thing I like about Sofia is that it has a strong sense of history both ancient and more recent, but feels like it’s looking forwards not back.
Hmm, the red carpet seems a bit out of place, doesn’t it? It’s an interesting collection of statues (some of them looks really angry) … I have actually never gave a thought to what might happen to these statues. I suppose Sofia managed to find a suitable place for their old statues.
Yes, that carpet was bizarre! It’s not even a ‘proper’ red carpet, more burgundy in colour, like an old-fashioned sitting room carpet 😆 Sofia isn’t the only city to have adopted this approach, other former communist block states in eastern Europe have similar museums I believe.
I agree with you, a good reminder of the troubled past. Good, or bad, the things should be remembered the way they were, if we like it or not. And maybe we learn a lesson or two for future. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks Christie – I do agree, although I’m not convinced we learn those lessons as we should
They’ve got that absolutely right in my opinion Sarah. , and what’s more I actually liked the communist style of sculptures and monuments
I have a soft spot for this style of thing too, as you know Malcolm – but this is probably the best place for it 🙂 Although you can still find a fair bit in the city itself, as I plan to show you in a week or so!
I agree with the idea of finding one particular spot to display such works ….as for the carpet…..!
I know – we were really surprised when we rounded the corner and saw that! But how often do we ordinary folk get to walk along a rad carpet, of sorts at least?!
Such arresting statues and very nicely put together in the green setting. Yes, there are definite similarities to Memento Park in Budapest, though I remember the actual “park” not being anywhere near as nice. I do believe it has been mightily spruced up since my visit.
Thanks Leighton 🙂 Memento Park will be a must for me if/when we get to Budapest, for sure!
I. J. Khanewala
It’s an interesting idea
I thought so, yes, and I’m also quite fascinated (perhaps weirdly) by the brutalist art of these regimes
I. J. Khanewala
Nor weird at all
I think that putting them in a museum is a good compromise between the options of leaving them where they were and destroying them. There needs to be some remembrance of them to help teach the younger generations so that history doesn’t repeat itself
Very true, although sadly I’m not convinced we’re ever that good at learning from and not repeating past mistakes 🙁
sad but true
Sarah, displaying our past transgressions (collectively and solemnly) seems so much better than destroying them. Much of the world would have to be burned to the ground if that were the case.
Sadly you are right Suzanne – we can’t destroy the past or even all reminders of it, nor should we.
How absolutely fascinating, and actually another parallel with Tirana where there is even a section of the Berlin Wall as a centrepiece to a display of bygone military might. All I can say right now is that I hope beyond hope that there will in a few years be a similarly shameful Putin exhibition in a remote field somewhere in Siberia.
Now that’s a good idea, but I’d rather it be somewhere more accessible than Siberia in the hope (possibly vain?) that future generations might visit and learn. The Berlin Wall seems to have found itself distributed quite widely. There’s a section in Riga too, part of a memorial to those who suffered trying to escape the Communist regimes, if I remember rightly.
Love the many expressions but mostly angry and intimidating faces 😂😂😂 Love them all!
Thanks Teresa – I think ‘intimidating’ is what Lenin and many of the others were aiming for!
Not a happy bunch, are they? We have a Bulgarian family running a favourite local restaurant. They work very hard and we can only surmise that the rewards are better in Portugal. I hope so! Thanks for the link, Sarah.
On the whole not, but not at all typical of present-day Bulgarians 🙂 Your family are happy in Portugal I am sure, but life seems pretty good here in Sofia too these days, although I wouldn’t fancy the winters here!
Goodness. Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the National Gallery it ain’t. But I’d willingly have visited with you. A lot of it isn’t immediately appealing though I think I’d find plenty to interest me at the least, and it is rather different from what we’re accustomed to seeing. Those last two are quite arresting.
Indeed not – although it IS a branch of their national gallery as it happens! It’s certainly interesting and there were a few pieces I genuinely liked, e.g. ‘And you speak through my heart’ and those last two 🙂
What an amazing museum. We can’t change history; just learn from it.
Absolutely agree – thank you Anne 🙂
Mike and Kellye Hefner
I like the idea of this museum/park. Countries should not try to rewrite their own history by destroying the things that remind us of the past – turbulent or not. Here in the US, they have done away with many things to do with the Civil War. So sorry if those things offend some people, but they are in fact part of our history. Bulgaria has done this the proper way, and if some don’t want to see it, then they don’t have to visit. Thank you for sharing these wonderful works of art with us, Sarah.
Yes, that’s how I feel. We have the same debate here about monuments relating to the days of the British Empire and colonialisation, and to the slave trade. This seems to me to be a good solution. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend these things didn’t happen, but it no longer seems appropriate to celebrate them so why not turn them to good use in educating people about the past?
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Absolutely! Those who try to rewrite history are destined to repeat it.