The campus of the Bulgarian National Museum of Military History in Sofia is defended on all sides by a garden of missiles and tanks. But as Director of Public Relations Deyana Kostova points out, many of the exhibits inside focus on the consequences of war rather than the tools of warfare.
One of these exhibits, called 'The Little Man in the Great War', explores the Bulgarian World War I experience through overarching emotions. In this episode, Kostova gives a tour of the exhibit, explains how the museum contextualizes Bulgarian and world history, and describes the mission of the museum to present history from multiple points of view.
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00:40: Diana Kostova, Director of Public Relations
01:40: Bulgaria in World War I
02:05: 'The Little Man in the Great War'
05:28: Vasil Levski's Hair
06:34: Bulgaria in World War II
08:00: Lopsided History During The Period Of Socialist Rule
08:25: The Mission of the Museum To Present History From Multiple Points of View
09:09: Museum Archipelago’s 50th Episode: Submit Your Audio
This episode was recorded at the National Museum of Military History in Sofia, Bulgaria on June 8th, 2018.
Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 49. 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.
I don’t really know how I’m supposed to feel at a military museum, particularly those that have gardens of comically oversized missiles and tanks.
The Bulgarian National Museum of Military History is one of these museums, but Bulgaria is a country that has spent much of its recent military history buffeted and whiplashed by bigger powers.
And that makes for a different experience wandering through these giant tools of war.
Deyana Kostova: Hello, my name is Diana Kostova, and I am director of museum marketing, public relations [at the] National Museum of Military History. The museum was established in 1916, in the course of the first world war. So the first exhibitions that came to the museum were directed straight from the front line to the museum. The first one was probably not so interesting, it is a document, but the fifth one was a crashed airplane, actually, and it is displayed in our permanent exhibition even nowadays and it can been seen as a way to remember these horrific days of the war.
The time frame of museum’s modern galleries, a campus of buildings in the middle of that garden of military hardware, actually begins much earlier than World War I, in the 4th millennium BCE. The museum displays the sweep of Bulgarian history since then, in which the Balkans have played host to a dizzying array of battles, conquests, rebellion, and centuries of rule by the Ottoman Empire.
By 1914, Bulgaria, liberated from Ottoman rule, had recently fought in the Second Balkan war and was about to enter World War I.
Deyana Kostova: Here we entered the First World War. It turned out that we entered on the wrong side, because at this moment Germany was telling us that choosing Germany would be the thing that would give us justice and will give us these territories that we lost in the Second Balkan War.
Instead of displaying the sweep of the events World War I, an exhibit called the Little Man in the Great War divides the Bulgarian First World War experience into four overarching emotions: hope, what you hold onto, self-preservation, and collapse.
Deyana Kostova: So this is our previously-launched exhibition. It is called the Little Man in the Great War. And the idea was to show the fate of the ordinary people, the small people who actually make the army, because the army is not the commanders in chief, it is not the generals, it is the numerous people without names, who actually perished at the battlefields, and they all had families, and they all had hopes, and the idea was to show the emotions during the war. So here we begin, with the very first emotion when the war was declared: it was the hope. The hope that this war was not going to be a long one. The hope that choosing Germany will bring justice, the hope that at the end, we will be victorious, we will have what is supposed to be ours, we will go back to our homes alive at the end. This was probably the most important.
The next emotion is hard to translate into English.
Deyana Kostova: There isn’t an equivalent in English. When I try to explain it, it means the things that you hold to. We wanted to show that even though it was a war, the life didn’t stop. There were weddings during the wartime. People were writing letters to their loved ones.
Then comes self-preservation.
Deyana Kostova: It was all the ways the soldiers had to keep themselves sane. The friendship that formed in the front lines. They tried to do these very temporary houses to resemble their homes, they were planting flowers, here you have watermelon at the front line, some of them had pets, like this small dog. They were making theaters at the front line, just to keep the spirit of the soldiers a bit higher.
And finally, collapse.
Deyana Kostova: We finish with the collapse: the collapse of all illusions, the collapse of all hope, the entire cynicism of the war. Here is a young beautiful boy. In our permanent exhibition you might see him again. There he is displayed as a symbol of the Bulgarian heroism, a symbol that even the youngest wanted to carry guns and to defend what was right for Bulgaria. But here we try to show it in a different perspective. To say okay, but this is a boy, this is a child. It is in the front line. It is not how it is supposed to be. We have all these eyes that are looking at us with some kind of a blame, that we as a humanity made this happen. It’s not a happy exhibition.
The Little Man in the Great War is really effective at telling a historical narrative through emotions. It works because you as the visitor are experiencing the emotions in chronological order, the order that ordinary Bulgarians would have felt them during the war. It’s a powerful contrast to the very inhuman tanks and missiles just outside
Other galleries in the museum also highlight the sentimental and emotional in the middle of conflict. Bulgaria fought for its liberation in the 19th century against the Ottoman Empire. One of the chief strategists (and martyrs) of the Bulgarian revolution is a man named, Vassil Levski, widely considered to be a national hero.
Deyana Kostova: Our museum displays his hair, which is kind of strange probably from a foreign perspective, but he was a monk, and it was him who cut off his hair when he decided that he doesn’t want to serve to god anymore, he wants to serve his people, to their freedom. So he cut off his hair and gave it to his mother and said, “you should keep my hair because one day probably I wouldn’t have a grave, and you may need to bury my hair.” And it is what actually happened. She didn’t know where he was buried, but she gave his hair to the county. And now there are so many little children who come to the museum and paying respect to this item.
Other galleries deal with more recent history, like the Bulgarian experience in World War II, which Kostova describes in similar language to World War I.
Deyana Kostova: And once again we chose Germany. We didn’t actually have choice. We made this exhibition three years ago now about the Second World War and we named it the War That We Could Not Avoid. The idea was that this was the war that we never had the chance to choose whether to participate or not in. Because at the moment we signed our participation in the tripartite pact, German troops were already marching inside Bulgaria. So it was either “with us or under us.” This Second World War turned out to be the point that changed everything in our history, because only three years later in 1944 another army was at our border. It was the Soviet army. Once again we didn’t have the choice. We were trying to declare neutrality again but it wasn’t an option at the end of the war, and we didn’t want to declare war to Germany because many many Bulgarians soldiers were surrounded by Germans, and the Soviets were marching on our streets three years after the Germans. At this moment, the political situation changed as well. And it changed the political regime to communist one, later on to socialistic one.
It’s important to remember that the official narratives of Bulgaria’s entire military history were pretty lopsided during the socialist period, up until the political collapse about thirty years ago. Since then, the country, and the museum, has had much more room for nuance in describing the motives of historical actors. The missiles and other pieces of military hardware are still there, but so are more emotional historical narratives.
Deyana Kostova: Our main mission in the museum nowadays is to try to tell the story with all the versions that are possible to be displayed. When you learn when you are young that there are different points of view of history, it is much easier when you grow up. These days, especially young people don’t have an idea of what war is, they think it is something cool that it is done for the right causes, and if you do it for the right cause, which is your right cause of course, then you’re a hero, you’re very brave. They are missing all of this, and we just wanted to show it.
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