Episode 46

46. Vessela Gercheva Directs Playful Exhibits at Bulgaria’s First Children’s Museum

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About this Episode

There were no children’s museums in the Balkans before Muzeiko opened in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2015. Days before Muzeiko’s historic opening, I interviewed Vessela Gercheva, the museum’s Programs and Exhibits Director. Gercheva talked about the challenges of opening the museum, not the least of which was how few people actually knew what a children’s museum was.

Today, almost three years later, Gercheva says things have changed. Muzeiko is packed with kids, careening through exhibits designed just for them. Gercheva and Muzeiko are at the forefront of a shifting attitude towards children's education in Bulgaria.

This episode was recorded on May 28, 2018 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Museum Archipelago is a tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or even email to never miss an episode.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 46. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.


Vessela Gerchva: Hello, my name is Vessela Gerchva and I’m the exhibits director for Muszeko.

Muzeiko, which means little museum in Bulgarian, is the first children’s museum in the Balkans. Before it opened in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia in 2015, all museums in the country where of the artifacts-behind-glass variety.

I first interviewed Gercheva in 2015, just before Muzeiko opened. In that interview, she said that the concept of a children’s museum was still new to Bulgarians.

Vessela Gerchva: Nobody knows here what a children’s science center does. It is a very abstract concept. What does it do? Does it display children? What does it do?

Today, almost three years after opening, Gercheva said that initial confusion — that nobody knew what a children’s museum was — has been resolved.

Vessela Gerchva: It has been crossed. The barrier now is more of what should we do inside if we don’t have to look at objects behind glass? We have been doing a lot of explaining about the importance of play about the importance of time together between children and parents. I assume this will continue at least some time because this is very new.

Gervecha says that the main reason why it has taken so long to build a children’s museum in Bulgaria was because of the style of learning during decades of Communism in Bulgaria, a style that focused on memorization and heavily deemphasized playful learning.

I remember visiting Bulgarian museums when I was a kid the ‘90s. They were cool for a young museum nerd like me, but they were certainly not for kids. Most of the signs said not to touch anything. And I vividly remember being the only one there, adult or child.

Now things have changed.

Vessela Gerchva: First of all we opened. There was a big change. It was received in several ways, I can’t describe in one word. First of all in numbers, it was received pretty well. In the beginning especially we had days where we had a lot a lot of visitors. We were making the organization of the days so that we could close for a while — then we would open for the others to come In terms of how people feel about it, there are several different layers. First of all there is a group of parents, teachers, — people who even before we opened were extremely interested in providing new environment for children. So naturally, these people came even before we opened. There is a second kind of circle that it is a little more distant. These are teachers that are interest to get new experience to kids, but find it very difficult in the current educational environment in Bulgaria which is quite restricting. Gets teachers in a lot of administrative work so it is really challenging to get kids outside of the school and to get them interested in science. So in many ways, from very exerligratering-ly received to not understanding what this, why should I bring my kid here. In this range, all the emotions, we have had them all.

Gercheva has a good answer to “why should I bring my kids here”? Muzekio’s exhibits, like the exhibits of many children’s science centers in the United States, are based on the theory of learning through play and applied activities.

Vessela Gerchva: We have exhibits where we invite the visitor to be in first person, to imagine themselves as an archeologist or as a geologist. But there are also exhibits in which we invite play which is thematic. Because we believe — it’s not only our belief — that playing itself excites children and makes them want to learn more, even if they are very small. We see this for example in the Toddler’s Days. It is still early of course to say if our toddlers are becoming astronomers, fingers crossed for that and if this happens it will not just be Muzeko to blame. But in the Toddler’s Days we have very young visitors — one two years old who get to play with the physical exhibits even if they are too young for the scientific concepts and any kind of information that is provided to them.

The exhibits are a mix of digital and physical exhibits. The digital exhibits, which themselves are mostly new in the Bulgarian museum landscape, were made by a game studio in Sofia, and many of them have game-like elements.

Many of the physical exhibits are also interactive. In an exhibit called Constructed World visitors turn cranks and pull levers that move various elements of a city model — water through pipes and traffic through roads.

Vessela Gerchva: Conceptually, the digital exhibits and the physical exhibits have been planned together, so they are very closely interlinked. For example, in the geology exhibit, you would have the physical exhibit that show how tectonic plates are collide to form different reactions that we see on earth. And the digital exhibit would talk about caves, and how people inhabited caves and left traces of art, even in very distant times. Because they were planned together, they don’t stand apart. They form a part of a joint concept.

In the beginning we had parents that were like, “we don’t really want the kid to be at the computer because he or she is on the computer all the time” but they very quickly understood that we’re providing content that is inseparable from the other exhibits and digital exhibits will make kids explore the physical ones and vice versa. I believe we haven’t put a big stress on digital exhibits, so that parents feel threatened by the brainwash … this quickly went away. We don’t have this concern anymore from parents.

Muzeiko’s colorful and modern facade stands out in a city full of drab gray buildings. But if you stood it side by side with other children's museums around the world, it would fit right in The concepts illustrated inside would fit right into other children's science centers around the world.

Even though the science presented is of course universal, there is a tie in to Bulgarian contributions.

Vessela Gerchva: Actually, there is a Bulgarian point in many of the exhibits, almost all of them. It is ether a Bulgarian invention like the first computer, or the Bulgarian greenhouse that traveled to the International Space Station. Or it can be a Bulgarian scientist or cosmonaut, we try to make a Bulgarian point in almost every exhibit. It was not the point to have at all means a Bulgarian touch in the exhibit. It was the point to show that science is universal, and even if Bulgaria is a small country, there are points at which Bulgaria made a big contribution. There are others in which we have worked in teams, and in those areas we have shown something else or some other achievement. The point here to make is that science is universal and that people make achievements when they work together.

The way that Gercheva talks about children's museums is very similar to the way that Margaret Middleton describes the process of making children’s museums in the United States. Middleton, an independent museum designer based in Providence, RI, USA, says that for adults, there are learning outcomes, but for kids, there are visitor outcomes.

Young me would’ve LOVED Muzeiko. I think about myself as that lone kid wandering a museum full of objects behind glass, and how much I would’ve loved to touch the objects, push buttons, pull levers, and explore in a three-dimensional world.

But it’s not just about my experience visiting Bulgaria as a kid. Muzeiko represents an optimism that wasn’t present in Bulgaria years ago. A successful children’s museum needs children to visit, and right after Communism fell in the late 1980s, many families left Bulgaria. People weren’t having kids, kindergartens closed, the average age kept increasing.

But things have changed. Bulgaria is now a place where people want to stay and start a family. There’s a sense of hope for the future, and that’s represented in this museum for children, full of young people careening through its exhibits designed for kids. And it isn’t just Muzeko. Gercheva says that the museum is working with other museums in Bulgaria, emphasizing new pedagogical methods to help convey their message to children more clearly.

Vessela Gerchva: There is a lot of knowledge in Bulgarian museums and the people who work there. These are incredibly well-prepared specialists in their areas. Just as any well prepared specialists, it is very difficult for them to limit the message and the story to one thing. Methodologically, we have been taught that we have to give a whole bunch of information and we now know, that children CAN’T get it all. For me, from the perspective of working with children, a lot more stress should be placed on the concept and on the content. I believe we should specialize more in telling stories.

If you’d like to learn more about Muzieko, you can listen to my first interview with Gercheva before the museum opened in 2015 in episode 6 of this program. To hear Margaret Middleton describe working on Children’s Museums in the United States, head to episode 45.