Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Bulgarian (Museum) Revolution

What would you do if you lived in a country that had no Children's Museums or Science Centers?

That's currently the state of affairs in Bulgaria.  Fortunately for the Bulgarian Museum community, and Bulgarian museum visitors in particular, a determined and resourceful young woman named Vessela Gertcheva is working to change all that.  In fact, Vessela and her colleagues in the museum and cultural sectors are on the brink of a true Bulgarian Museum Revolution.

I just returned from a trip to Bulgaria where I was part of a three-person consulting team (myself, Deborah Edward, and Sally Yerkovich) funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, under the direction of the New Bulgarian University, to observe and provide advice on the pilot project designed to develop five "Children's Corners" (really small interactive exhibition areas designed to introduce children and family groups to hands-on exhibits) into five different museums around Bulgaria.

Vessela is spearheading the "Children's Corners" project as a way to build public awareness for the possibilities of interactive learning spaces in Bulgaria, and to ultimately pave the way for a free-standing Bulgarian Children's Museum there.  In this blog posting, I'll share some of the experiences of my trip to Bulgaria, as well as some of the museum and exhibit ideas I came away with.

But first, a little background.  Everyone I told about my trip before I actually left for Bulgaria was surprised and/or fascinated by my destination.  But most people (including myself, originally) weren't really sure where Bulgaria was located.  So, here's a map:

Bulgaria is bordered to the south by Greece and Turkey, to the west by Macedonia, to the north by Romania, and to the east by the Black Sea.  My sense of central Sofia, the capital, was that there were a few beautiful buildings surrounded by much blocky, oppressive architecture reflective of the Soviet-dominated, totalitarian past of Bulgaria.  This is changing since Bulgaria's entry into the European Union, but slowly.

Similarly, the Bulgarian museums we visited were decidedly "old school."  Large buildings whose interiors were dominated by rows and floors of artifacts and objects in glass cases (or as our Bulgarian hosts charmingly described them, "cages.")  While many of these traditional Bulgarian museums provided interesting staffed programs (such as weekend bazaars or the popular annual "European Bat Night" at the National Museum of Natural History) museum staff have become increasingly interested in exploring ways for integrating interactive exhibit areas geared toward children and families into their museums.

The first of the five Children's Corners opened in September 2010 at the Regional Museum of History in Blagoevgrad, in the southwestern part of Bulgaria.  Having seen the finished gallery, I am very impressed and think that the Blagoevgrad exhibition raises the bar high for the succeeding four galleries in this project to match.  (You can read my entire review and see a batch of pictures from the Blagoevgrad installation by clicking over to the ExhibiFiles website.) 

I also learned a new exhibit trick from our Bulgarian museum colleagues: their animal track stamping component makes use of "Moon Sand" in the central stamping area, which makes for sharper track impressions as well as limiting some degree of the messiness associated with traditional loose sand.

In visiting the other museum sites that will be creating their own Children's Corners, and by meeting with their directors and curatorial staff, I was struck by several things:

• It is exceedingly difficult to imagine the possibilities or develop interactive exhibit ideas if neither you, nor your visitors, have directly experienced a hands-on gallery or museum.  This is a key part of both the challenge, and the revolution, inherent in the Children's Corner project.  Fortunately, the completed gallery in Blagoevgrad is already serving as a model and benchmark to Bulgarian museum professionals and visitors alike.

• Prototyping and testing your ideas is the most effective way to achieve good results.  There was a little bit of the tendency in Bulgaria (as there is in the U.S. and elsewhere in the museum world) to want to design and develop the interactive children's exhibitions inside meeting rooms with a quorum of experts.  Fortunately, by the end of our trip to Bulgaria, our hosts seemed to be warming up to the notion of using prototyping as a way to answer exhibit design and development questions.

• Failure IS an option.  As I often say to my kids, "It's o.k. to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them, and don't keep repeating the same mistakes over and over."   There is an enormous degree of professional pride and pressure at stake for the Bulgarian Children's Corner project sites --- which might make some people decide to stick with very safe exhibit design and development choices.   Fortunately, the vast majority of project partners we came in contact with seem to realize that this is a time and opportunity that favors choices that may be difficult and risky.

We really are witnessing the start of a truly exciting museum revolution in Bulgaria, and I can't wait to see what happens next!  (Feel free to contact me with question or to request addition details about my work in Bulgaria.)

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