Friday, June 14, 2024

Bringing Dark History to Light

In the past few months, I had two interconnected experiences related to Belene, a forced labor camp in Bulgaria.

Belene was a prison camp in northern Bulgaria on an island in the Danube River that was active from approximately 1949 to 1987.  Belene was one of the places where the Bulgarian regime would send dissidents or just about anyone who disagreed publicly with the policies of Bulgaria's socialist state.

This past March, I had the opportunity to tour with a local volunteer guide the site of the former Belene camp, a remote natural area filled with decaying buildings that are slowly being interpreted and restored.  It's a bit of a strange experience since a penitentiary still operates in the western part of the island, while the eastern part is a managed natural reserve filled with pelicans and other wildlife.

Of course, being in a place where so much human tragedy occurred is a deeply moving experience. But how do you interpret the stories from such a remote place? And how do you push against many people's reluctance to bring up such painful memories from Bulgaria's past?

Enter the Sofia Platform Foundationa non-governmental organization. One part of the Foundation's mission is focused on "promoting remembrance and dealing with the communist past through historical dialogue and education."

To that end, I recently visited a pop-up exhibition entitled “Belene—A Bulgarian Resistance Story” in Washington, D.C. The exhibition drew upon hours of video interviews with Nikola Daskalov, a Belene camp survivor. The exhibit experience provided visitors with the unique opportunity to have a "conversation" with Mr. Daskalov through an interactive AI-driven video system.

The exhibition is one part of the Belene Camp project < >, an effort of the Sofia Platform Foundation, with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, to preserve the memory of Bulgaria's totalitarian past using state-of-the-art technology.

And isn't bringing the past, even the painful and uncomfortable past, into the light of the present in new and engaging ways an essential part of our museum work?  

I urge you to visit all of the organizations' websites linked above to learn more about their important work, including opportunities to "converse" with Belene survivors via a Web interface.

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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