Episode 70

70. The Gabrovo Museum of Humor Bolsters Its Legacy of Political Satire Post-Communism


September 30th, 2019

11 mins 30 secs

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About this Episode

To the extent that there was a Communist capital of humor in the last half of the 20th century, it was Gabrovo, Bulgaria. Situated in a valley of the Balkan mountains, the city prides itself on its unique brand of self-effacing humor. In 1972, the Museum House of Humor and Satire opened here, and the city celebrated political humor with people in Soviet block countries and even some invited Western guests.

Today, three decades after the collapse of Communism, the Museum House of Humor and Satire remains one of the region's most important cultural landmarks. The museum has had to reinvent itself to interpret not only a democratic Bulgaria, but a the global, meme-driven, and internet-forged culture most visitors live in.

I went to Gabrovo to visit museum director Margarita Dorovska, who describes how the museum's strengths in its early years—like knowing how to present political humor without arousing the interest of the authorities—inform how the museum thinks of its role in the world today.

Topics and Links

  • 00:00 Intro
  • 00:15 Gabrovo, Bulgaria
  • 01:07 Margarita Dorovska
  • 01:44 How the Museum House of Humour and Satire Started
  • 02:40 How to Run A Humor Museum Under Communism
  • 04:05 1st International Biennial of Humour and Satire in the Arts in Gabrovo
  • 05:55 The Museum in 1989
  • 06:40 After the Collapse
  • 07:00 Humor is Not Universal
  • 07:30 Media Freedom in Bulgaria
  • 07:55 Addressing Civic Space in Bulgaria: Garden Town
  • 09:09 The Museum and the Internet
  • 11:00 Outro | Join Club Archipelago

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 70. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

In the middle of Bulgaria, not far from the crumbling Buzludzha monument, lays the town of Gabrovo. Situated in a valley of the Balkan mountains, the city prides itself on its unique brand of humor.

Many local jokes jokes are self deprecating about the Gabrovoian obsession with frugality and entrepreneurship, and center around the comical lengths that townspeople go to save money. The mascot of the city is a black cat without a tail. It is said that Gabrovoians prefer cats without tails because they can shut the door faster when they let the cat out, saving on their hearting bills.

Margarita Dorovska: That's actually typical for the Balkan mountains. This used to be the kind of humor that would exist in the region around Gabrovo, not just Gabrovo itself. But Gabrovoians were smart enough to brand it as theirs. That's the entrepreneurial side of things, of course. [laughter].

This is Margarita Dorovska.

Margarita Dorovska: Hello! My name is Margarita Dorovska and I'm a curator by profession and I'm the Director of the Museum of Humour and Satire in Gabrovo, Bulgaria.

The museum was founded in 1972. Before the Wall fell, this location was known as the Communist capital of humour, extending its reach across Eastern Block countries, and also to certain circles in the West.

I visited Gabrovo because I wanted to find out how this political humor and satire museum could have started here during communist times, and how the museum is tackling the global, meme-driven culture of the world today.

Margarita Dorovska: There are a couple of precursors that we have to go through to understand how the museum appeared. Two things. One is the Gabrovo humor jokes. So someone announced the completion in the newspaper, that the municipality is paying a certain amount for each joke that gets juried into a collection of Gabrovo jokes. They collected a lot of these jokes, made a book, and this book was an absolute bestseller. It was immediately translated of course in Russian, but also in different languages like French, English, German and it started selling very very well. The other thing that happened was the the Gabrovo carnival: this was restarted in the 60s and it is typical for being a carnival with a lot of political humor and satire.

And this is the crucial theme of the museum and why it was able to exist in an age of single-party rule. The people running the carnival, and later the museum, were experts at walking up to the line, without crossing it.

Margarita Dorovska When we speak of political satire, do not imagine the general secretary of the party being satirized. It was very clear to what level the satire can reach. So satire was an instrument in the hands of good communists to fight those who abused power, but to certain level.

So it extends up to maybe a local official, but never higher?

Margarita Dorovska: Exactly, exactly. It was very clear where the satire can reach. As to the Gabrovo jokes, they’re not political, they deal with economy, with the mentality of the local people.

Combining the two: or maybe more realistically, using the Gabrovo jokes as a Trojan Horse to present more political satire, was what led some entrepreneurial Gabrovians to open a museum.

Margarita Dorovska: [In] Typical Gabrovo style, they didn't build a new building, but they refurbished an old leather factory. So the building we are in is the fromer leather factory. First it was cheaper, second it could go slightly unnoticed because you don't need the same kind of permissions to build and to refurbished.

And if you wanted your out-of-the-mainstream project to succeed in communist Bulgaria, asking for permission was not the way to go.

The museum started to put on biennials, festivals held every two years which featured invited Western guests. The first was in 1973.

Margarita Dorovska: They immediately started with the biennials, the first edition of the biennials was dedicated to cartoons and small satirical sculpture. It was international and they brought in amazing names. How could that exist? If you think of that time, most cartoonists in the western world would be critical, would be leftists. So they would be very welcome in Bulgaria. And that would indeed be a gathering place for East and West.

But there was a problem with that first biennial: the jury selected, for first prize, a cartoonist from Turkey, a country on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Margarita Dorovska: The director thought, "oh wow, what we did?" "What are you doing? How are you going to give a prize to a cartoonist from a NATO country?" And they started asking themselves, but we never asked for permission to start a biennial, to gather all of these people, that's going to be a huge problem, what are we going to do?” Then he thought, what am I going to do? The only thing he could do was go straight to the monster.

So the director went straight to the daughter of the general secretary and the Bulgarian dictator, Ludmilla Zhivkova, who would later become minister of culture.

Margarita Dorovska: She was good enough to listen. She was smart to perceive good ideas and to support them. So, it worked. She came, she opened the biennial. And it all went on well. And they never gave the reward anymore to a cartoonist coming from a country that would be an issue.

The museum and the biennials kept growing, until communism collapsed in 1989.

Margarita Dorovska: In 1989, they had more than 80 foreign guests, artists, juries coming for the biennial. So it was massive. After 1989 was the collapse indeed. At that time there were more than 100 people working in the House of Humor. Because if you think of all the different departments: cinema, literature, folklore, it was a big enterprise, with a lot of events, with amazing exhibitions. When I look at photos from the 1970s and 1980s, I'm absolutely astonished by the exhibition design you see. It's amazing, it's so well done. I don't think anywhere in Bulgaria it was so good.

After the collapse, the museum's staff shrank to a skeleton crew. Dariskova joined the museum in 2016 and argued for a new direction for the museum's curation.

Margarita Dorovska: As you can imagine, until 1989, my colleagues would have insisted that humor is universal. That all human beings all laugh. Humor is omnipresent and universal. The first fight that I had to have with the team when I came was to say, “I’m sorry but humor is not universal.” Humor is so culture based. It’s totally culture-based. Of course, it is safer to say that humor is universal and not to go into political humor. It’s safer. But then you don’t do your job. Our mission is to be very timely, to show things that are happening today. And if a humor and satire museum can’t do that, who else can do that?

While a lot has improved over the past decade in Bulgaria, media freedom is declining. Most of the press has been purchased by oligarchs, and corruption and collusion between the media and politicians is widespread.

Margarita Dorovska: You know there are issues with freedom of expression in Bulgaria. So at least a museum should be some sort of outlet.

The museum addresses the civic space in Bulgaria with a new temporary children’s exhibit called Garden Town. The charming subtitle is “where mischief has a happy end.”

Margarita Dorovska: We wanted to look at different examples or area of publicness, what’s public life, public debate, public media, public space and so on, and we really wanted to have this theme for children, so for the first time we are doing this children’s exhibition. It’s called Garden Town, and it’s a model of a town where the different neighborhoods address different issues, such as graffiti, you’re invited to draw, or voting, that’s the place where you go by yourself and it’s accidentally a toilet but it’s also a voting room, then we have some gorilla guarding, making bombs of seeds, etc. Finally, there’s the PensivePark where kids -- because they usually come in groups, they are invited to sit down and have a discussion and reach a decision. We give them some advice about how they can make a decision like tossing a coin, or concessions, or voting, or different options -- including anarchy! [laughter]

It’s really something to see how far the museum has come from starting within the communist system, to reinventing itself to remain relevant in ways that are crucially important to a modern Bulgarian audience. Dariskova admits that the next stage of reinventing -- interpreting humor on the internet, to an audience that lives online -- hasn’t happened yet.

Margarita Dorovska: That’s the first big challenge I could think of when I learned that the museum was looking for a director. I came to the museum, I looked at it, I was real impressed, and then I thought how can I change this place? How can you make it really fun when all the fun you need is on your phone. You can just scroll for hours and never stop laughing, so what can a museum do about that? Are we supposed to show the same things? No! You don’t go to the museum to go look at something you could see on your phone. Internet certainly has changed humor a lot. This is an exhibition we’ve been planning but we are trying to find the right research team to prepare that, memes, all the different funny games. It is very interesting to see how internet has been changing humor and where we are at now.

The way jokes developed in Gabrovo, where people told slightly different versions to each other -- and in the process carefully distilled the most sharable essence of the joke -- mirrors the way that memes are forged in online communities. Constantly morphing to get more attention.

Maybe the best chance we have of interpreting communities online and off comes from a humor museum. Thre Gabrovo Museum of Humour and Satire, which has already morphed through 20 years of communism and 30 years of democracy, is a good place to start. Just close the door quickly when you let the cat out.

This has been Museum Archipelago.