Episode 92

92. The Pleven Panorama Museum Transports Visitors Through Time, But Not Space


May 3rd, 2021

12 mins 22 secs

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About this Episode

The Pleven Panorama transports visitors through time, but not space. The huge, hand-painted panorama features the decisive battles of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877–78, fought at this exact spot, which led to Bulgaria’s Liberation. The landscape of Pleven, Bulgaria depicted is exactly what you see outside the building, making it seem like you’re witnessing the battle on an observation point.

Bogomil Stoev is a historian at the Pleven Panorama, which opened in 1977. The opening was timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s surrender following the battles and the siege of Pleven. The building itself is etched with the story of the siege and the battles, and because the landscape is filled with the remains of the combattants, this was the only structure allowed to be built on the spot.

In this episode, Stoev describes how the creators of the Pleven Panorama learned from previous panoramas, how the museum contextualizes the history of Bulgaria’s Liberation, and how this museum has become a symbol of the city of Pleven.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 92. 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.

Skobelev Park just South of the Bulgarian city of Pleven looks like a typical Bulgarian park. A pleasant place to sit on a bench, walk around with friends, and enjoy the day.

Which it is.

But to the people of Pleven, the area has another name. It's known as the Valley of Death, the site of the decisive battle of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which ultimately led to Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottoman Empire after 500 years.

Bogomil Stoev: Around 70, 80 thousand people, they died here and their remainings, they are here. They were not buried in the cemetery. They were using the trenches and they would put the bodies and just put mud on them. So here we cannot dig. You cannot do anything, any kind constructions and this is why when they built the museum in 1977, we are the only structure here.

This is Bogomil Stoev, a historian at the Pleven Panorama museum — the only structure in Skobelev Park.

Bogomil Stoev: Hello, my name is Bogomil Stoev. I'm a historian and I work in the museum Panorama Pleven and this is actually my job to work with visitors, to show the fights and the history of our city, city of Pleven. This was the main place of the fights that actually liberated Bulgaria and Bulgaria exists at this day because of this war and this fight.

Story of this war and this fight actually begins in the late 14th century when the Ottoman Empire conquered the land controlled by the Second Bulgarian Empire, leading to the long period of Ottoman rule.

Bogomil Stoev: [For] 500 years we didn't exist like a country. We were not existing as a country, only as a nation. And after this war, Bulgaria was again on the map of Europe after 500 years.

By the 19th century, Bulgarian nationalism started to take hold, culminating in the April Uprising in 1876. Bulgrians rebelled in towns and cities across the territory against the Ottomans. The Ottoman Empire's response to the insurrection — a violent suppression by massacring civilians — led to an outpouring of public support for the Bulgarian cause.

Bogomil Stoev: Koprivshtitsa and Panagyurishte, those are the main places for the uprising. This is actually the punishment for the Bulgarian people because they made the uprising. 30,000 innocent people were killed this was a big news around the world.

The coverage of the Ottoman's suppression was one of the factors that led the Russian Empire to declare war on the Ottoman Empire.

Bogomil Stoev: And one year after the rebellion on 24th of April in 1877, Alexander II, the Russian emperor, he declared the war. And this is the beginning of maybe [the] 10th, 12th war between the Russian and Ottoman Empire, but in our history, in Bulgarian history, it stayed as a war for liberation.

All of this context is briefly presented in the first gallery of the Pleven Panorama — as visitors walk up the stairs to the main attraction: the Panorama itself.

Bogomil Stoev: And this is the main part of the museum actually.


Bogomil Stoev: So this part of the museum, it's actually the unique part. The name of the museum is because of this part here: Panorama. The name starts in Greek. It means, looking around yourself and the idea is that when you go in a museum like this, you can see actually the real place.

The Panorama is huge: one unbroken cylinder of painted canvas wrapping all the way around the room.

Bogomil Stoev: It was hand- made. This is on canvas. It's one big piece. It's 115 meters long and it's 15 meters high. 15 meters here in Bulgaria are like four floors of a building. 13 painters did everything here in four months.

Everything in the room — the lights, the atmosphere creates the illusion that you're standing at this location in the afternoon of September 11th, 1877. It's as if the canvas is a window — the mountains in the distance, the rolling hills in the foreground are all exactly what you would see if there were actual windows in the building.

Bogomil Stoev: And the idea of this part here, or the museum is actually to show you the fight for the place that you're sitting right now. We will go on the roof of the museum: this is the view. This is not a place somewhere around the city. This is exactly the place we are right now.

The focus on the exact location mirrors Pleven's geographic destiny — this was the only place for Russian troops and their Romainain allies to enter the territory because their access to the Black Sea was blocked due to the Crimean War. The trade routes and the paths over the mountains were such that whoever controlled Pleven could control access to southern Bulgaria and Istanbul. So this is where the Ottoman Empire tried to stall the invaders' progress. And it almost worked. September 11th, 1877 was the third attack on the Ottoman defensive positions. On the canvas, Russian troops — under the command of General Skobelev— stream towards you in two main divisions, with guns and bayonets. A third division of Romaian troops capture a nearby position.

Bogomil Stoev: The whole park here is by the name of the person that you can see over there on the white horse. So this is General Skobelev, he was in charge of the soldiers here. And from here he wanted help to go and liberate the city.

We, the museum visitors, are put in the position of the defenders, the Ottoman soldiers, surrendered by two battlefields.

Bogomil Stoev: The only successful fight at this day is the fight here for the place of the museum. And this is why we are here. So 13,000 soldiers came from the green hills that you can see over there that were crossing the Valley. They separated on two and they attacked at the same time.

Looking north, you can see the city of Pleven as it would have looked in 1877, one of the largest cities in Bulgaria at the time.

The battle resulted in so many casualties that the attackers switched tactics, and brought in General Totleben. Totleben decided to conduct a siege of the city of Pleven, still under Ottoman control.

Bogomil Stoev: The idea of Totleben was very different. So he didn't rely on soldiers to fight for the place. As you can see here. His idea is actually to use the place. You can see that the city is in the Valley. It's very easy to surround the place so that nothing goes in and nothing goes out. For 45 days, no food, no water, the water mills that were in the city, they were not working. The soldiers, they started to die from hunger, from diseases. Actually the people of Pleven started to actually die from hunger and diseases. They are telling that the city was like tomb.

The siege was successful in forcing the Ottoman soldiers to break out of the city: after another battle, the Ottomans surrendered on December 10, 1877. Bulgaria was finally back on the map of Europe. The Pleven Panorama museum opened exactly 100 years later, on December 10th, 1977. 100 years is a long time, and Bulgaria looked very different. In 1977 Bulgaria was a satellite state of the USSR, operating under a communist regime. I asked Stoev if the political environment — and the story of Russian armies contributing to Bulgarian liberation — was one of the reasons for creating the panorama.

Bogomil Stoev: Our museum was made from volunteers and from donations and it's not part of any political things, we were just representing the fights that actually liberated Bulgaria.

And so that's different than something like Buzludzha?

Bogomil Stoev: Yeah, yeah that's made from, for the government and from the government and it was something different as an idea.

Buzludzha — the concrete flying saucer monument that we covered on episodes 47 and 54 of Museum Archipelago — comes to mind because it was built only a few years later in 1981, and it has a similar feel: an imposing, disk-shaped structure of pressed concrete with a vertical column or two. But the comparison ends there. While Buzludzha was constructed to make the communist party look futuristic, the architecture of the Pleven Panorama itself is etched with the story of the siege and the battles of the past.

Bogomil Stoev: This building was built to be the museum. It was not something that already existed and they used. This vision of the building here is something that was part of the history of the city. How? You saw the spikes, they represent the two battlefields. You can see the structure that is on the rings.The first three rings that are the upper part of the museum. Every ring represents one attempt to liberate the city. And then the siege is the big ring that's down in the museum. So this is the idea. When you see the museum to see the three attempts, then the siege and the two battlefields.

The shape of the building supports the massive panorama inside. 1977 was long after the peak in popularity of European panorama painting or cycloramas, as they tend to be called in North America. They were a way to create an immersive environment by hand — an early example of virtual reality. The landscapes and the battles they portrayed — almost always in custom built-buildings — presented spectacle without words, and like modern immersive experiences, each little detail helped complete the illusion. The Pleven Panorama learned from the panoramas before it. The studio that built it had experience with other panoramas. They knew the color temperature the lights had to use to make it feel like sunshine. They knew how sensitive the canvas is to heat and humidity, so they built the museum so that only 30 people would be in the room at any one time, for a maximum of 10 minutes — but with two staircases leading to other galleries, the visitor flow could be continuous. The surface in front of the panorama canvas, but beyond the viewing platform, is littered with artifacts — cannons, makeshift camps, broken wagon wheels. It's all positioned to create the illusion that the scene continues into the painted canvas.

Bogomil Stoev: Everything that you can see, the uniforms, all the weapons. They are actually real, they were not made, they're found here and they're real. And they were used in the war.

Of the approximately 100 panoramas in the world, the Pleven Panorama is one of only 19 extent examples in the classical style.

Bogomil Stoev: This is the old way how you make a museum like this, you make a painting, that's handmade. It's on canvas. It's with oil painting. And it was made here on the place of the museum. The modern panoramas they can be prints or even they can be all digital, where you have even sound, you'll have some kind of lightning, even a smell. It can be full experience for the visitor. So this is not a modern type of museum.

It's as if lot of things came together perfectly to create this panorama — the innovation was doing the older-style panorama correctly, with enough resources, and with the technology to protect the canvas. In a city teaming with nearly 200 monuments to the events of 1877, the Pleven Panorama has become the most enduring symbol of the city and the decisive battle.

Bogomil Stoev: And every place is a symbol for something, every city in Bulgaria. But when you tell someone Pleven, they think about this, they think about the war, liberation of Bulgaria and the Panorama.