Past Contested

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Publicerad: 2012-01-17


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


The museum of socialist art opened on the 19th of September 2011 in Sofia. Its establishment followed years of complaint from the side of a host of Bulgarian intellectuals and public figures bemoaning the absence of an adequate national institution dealing with the memory of the socialist period (Vukov 2008; Kazalarska 2011). Until then; this part of Bulgarian history was conspicuously absent from the permanent exhibits of national and regional history museums. Even the sites of former labour camps and prisons for political detainees have managed to escape from the global museumizing impulse of the late 20th and the early 21th centuries. As Nikolai Vukov ironically writes; the most prominent case of a museum of the socialist past was the house of the former communist leader Todor Zhivkov in his birthplace; the town of Pravets; which was maintained by the local people to commemorate Zhivkov’s important role in recent Bulgarian history (Vukov 2009). Although the new museum of socialist art had become a source of controversies long before its opening; since its inauguration it has found itself at the epicentre of a virtual war waged not only on its contents; but also on its name; location; management; and legal status.

My paper attempts to trace these disputes; analyse the memory wars in which the museum of socialist art got enmeshed; and also place these debates in a larger European perspective. It will attempt to reflect on the questions and problems; which arise when art is used as a means to remember; narrate; and exhibit socialism. The paper is based on four in-depth interviews with the museum’s director; the chief curator of the exhibition and her assistant; in December 2011 and June 2012; as well as press coverage of various issues concerning the museum; from 2010 to 2012. I have visited the museum five times; once in November 2011; twice in December 2011; once in March 2012; when a new exhibition was opened in its inner hall; and once during the Long Night of Museums in May 2012.


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