Episode 87

87. The Vitosha Bear Museum Lives in a Tiny Mountain Hut


November 16th, 2020

9 mins 13 secs

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About this Episode

Vitosha Mountain, the southern border of Sofia, Bulgaria, is home to about 15 brown bears and one bear museum. According to Dr. Nikola Doykin, fauna expert at the Vitosha Nature Park Directorate, the bear population is stable—if humans stay away and protect their habitat. To Doykin and his team, teaching children about the bears is the best way forward, and the Vitosha Bear Museum does just that.

Founded in 2002 by repurposing an abandoned mountain shelter for the Vitosha mountain rangers, the Vitosha Bear Museum provides “useful tips on how to meet a bear.” It’s also sparse: the entire gallery is a single room, and the gallery lighting is powered by a car battery.

In this episode recorded at the museum, Dr. Nikola Doykin describes why the location is so useful for eco education, how groups of schoolchildren react to exhibits, and what the museum plans to do when it installs solar panels.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 87. 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.

Towering over the Bulgarian capital of Sofia is Vitosha mountain. Connected to the city by several public buses, residents like me love hiking the numerous mountain trails to get away from the hustle and bustle.

[Hiking Sounds]

And it was on one of these solitary hikes that I first came across The Vitosha Bear Museum. At first I didn’t quite know what I was looking at: a cute little hut halfway up the mountain with a locked door and boarded up windows.

But the sign said Bear Museum in Bulgarian, and also that the museum was closed because it was “hibernating” for the winter.

So I sent some emails and that’s how, a few days later, I met Dr. Nikola Doykin at the museum.

добър ден! (Good day!)

Dr. Nikola Doykin: добър ден! (Good day!)

Dr. Nikola Doykin is a Fauna expert at the Vitosha Nature Park Directorate, the organization that runs the museum. And he also had a key to open the museum door, which he wasn’t sure would work because it had been a month since he last used it.

[Key Unlocking Sounds]

Dr. Nikola Doykin: “And as you see, our museum is how to say, very simple.”

The museum is as small on the inside as it looks on the outside. There’s no electric connection at the museum -- the LED lights that illuminate the gallery are powered by a car battery that Doykin switched on when we entered.

The rustic appearance is a carryover from the building’s first purpose: a mountain shelter for the Vitosha mountain rangers.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: And this was the place that they are staying during the night. And after that, it was abandoned, totally. And one guy had the idea to make this a place where we can show the bears, and where they can live, and the whole idea of the bears in the forest.

The abandoned shelter was turned into the Vitosha Bear Museum in 2002. For Doykin, this is the perfect setting for the museum -- because what’s outside is just as important as what’s inside.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: it will be easy for us if this kind of a museum was in a city. But we cut the line if we are in the city, but not in the forest because after that we can go out in the forest and show something else to the children. And mostly we have a little bit of a different education with the children and we start from here after that, we go out in the field and they can feel everything.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: the idea is to put especially the children, the new generation, to put them in a real feelings to smell the forest, to feel the wind. The whole idea of the eco education, forestry education to take out the children from the cities and to show them real nature and how they can walk around and even to have fun in the forest, not only in the cities.

The forests and mountains of Bulgaria represent a part of the national ethos, and so do the brown bears that live there. As the number of bears in the country declined, so too has the cultural pervasiveness of bears as fearsome carnivorous predators. Today, there’s an increased focus on conservation and even a sense of pride about Bulgaria’s remaining bears.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: We can say something about 10 to 15 bears that are left in Vitosha mountain, but mostly on the south part of the mountain.

According to Doykin, DNA testing has indicated that there’s enough genetic diversity in this population of bears to reproduce and ensure their continued survival on Vitosha mountain -- that is if humans stay away and protect their habitat. To Doykin and his team, teaching children about the bears is the best way forward. As a local news article about the museum put it, “useful tips on how to meet a bear are given at the Vitosha Bear Museum”.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: And mostly what to do, not to meet the bear. And if we meet it, find it somehow, what to do.

In the corner of the room, there’s a tree taken from the forest which has markings from a bear.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: What they do to mark their territory, the different types of markings. And also, one tree that is for real marked, from a bear, here with his teeth and here with his claws.We can show to the children what, what to look for.

The tree in the sparse interior makes it easy to connect visitors to what’s going on outside the four walls.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: After we show them how the bears mark their territory, to start to look around, to see if some of the trees are marked, And then we present to the children that same information. Where it can live, where we can find it, to take care of the animals, not to kill them, we make some programs and speak to the childrens.

On interpretive panels, visitors will also find information about the evolution and geographic distribution of different types of bears. These cover not just the brown bear -- the only type of bear found in Europe in Bulgaria, but also black bears in the Americas and in Asia, and polar bears. A glass case displays skulls from all of these bears. There’s even a bit of space in the basement where visitors can go inside a fake bear cave and see statues of a brown bear and her cub.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: In here, the main idea was to be dark, because in a cave, there is no lights. We had no real bears, but only those. And the small bear in the cave, that's his mom take care of him.

The cave is the perfect example of the museum working with what it has -- in this case a dark, low-ceilinged basement that doesn’t require electricity, and choosing the interpretive materials carefully -- in this case a simple statue is quite effective.

In many ways, the museum stands apart from the Muzeiko Children’s museum in Sofia, which we’ve featured in episodes 6 and and 46 of this show. That museum: the first children’s museum in the Balkans, features a huge number of computerized interactives centered around the concept of playful learning, which was not encouraged -- to say the least -- when Bulgaria was a Communist country.

But The Vitosha Bear Museum also breaks the mold of rote memorization and statistics overload that used to define Bulgaria’s education system and is still present at many of Bulgaria’s museums. But instead of computerized interactives, the museum finds playful learning in the feeling of a sparse ranger’s hut.

And next season, the museum will add electricity with a solar panel system.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: Next year, already we got contract with company to make a solar system with solar panels. We will have electricity and then we will have more things to do.

With electricity installed, Doykin and his team hope to increase the number and interactivity of the exhibits.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: For me, it's not bad to have this kind of nature of feeling of wood, really to touch the bear or to smell the leaves. And also you can have some interactive games. You can make some 3d, and mentioned to see how the bear walking around.

But Doykin -- who would spend all his time in the mountains if he could -- still considers the real museum to be on the outside.

Dr. Nikola Doykin: We have both museums: the biggest and the smallest. And it's good to have both.

This has been Museum Archipelago.