I started off my day in Sofia as I do in most every city, on a quest for a good cappuccino. Within an hour I found a suitable place near the Hagia Nedelja church. As I eyed the cast of potential sweets that would perhaps accompany my cappuccino, Mika’s “Fat girls are beautiful” started playing on the radio. I decided against the sweets.
One of my goals for the day was to see a few museums, the National Archaeological Museum [национален археологически музей] in particular. As with the few other museums and churches I had been to, including the crypt of the Aleksandr Nevski Cathedral that contained hundreds of religious icons from the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries, every place had its doors closed. On each set of doors was a large knocker [insert joke here]. After man-handling the door handle, entrance is secured. It was no different at the National Archaeological Museum.
When I entered, it felt like I was stepping back into the nineteenth century. In fact, the museum was opened in 1905 and is housed in a former mosque from the Ottoman period built in the fifteenth century, adding to its old-world ambience. An old woman in a small booth sold me a ticket for десет лева or 10 Lev [approximately 7 dollars] and I proceeded to open another set of doors and entered the main hall.
This is what museums should be like. The museum was clean and organized, and the range of artifacts from Neolithic to Roman was well-referenced in Bulgarian and English. The building structure fit the subject matter perfectly. This was not a museum like so many in the world today that look like shiny shopping malls. It was not corporatized, it was not full of sponsorship, and it was not full of the names of patrons who gave cash just so they could feed their egos by having halls named after them.
It was a place that allowed me to imagine these artifacts independent of the modern world, to appreciate them, and to imagine what it was like for the archaeologists of the nineteenth century to find them. It was also exciting not knowing what lay around the corner.
I made my way through a small door and corridor into a room piled full of stone objects. They were all piled up against one another like they had just been shipped to the museum via some slow inter-Europe train that had to traverse some now-defunct pre-WWI empire.
Many museums these days are increasingly becoming corporatized and “interactive,” meaning some low-cost graphic-designed flip boards and some video displays, but with little in the way of actual substance vis a vis artifacts. If you want to step back in time and have a unique museum experience, hop a flight to Sofia. Just don’t look suspicious when you go through passport control.