– Prof. Dimitrova, what is the biggest challenge in managing an open-air ethnographic museum, which is the only one of its kind in Bulgaria?
– The biggest challenge with such a museum is to see it both preserved and in development. On the one hand, it is necessary to act conservatively so as not to lose its essence. On the other hand, it is necessary to take a modernist approach so that the presented past is comprehensible to new generations. The team needs to have enough people whose expertise is influenced by one or the other philosophy. And at the same time their professional relationship remains in balance to get the best out of it. Another big challenge is for the museum to be present in the international cultural space. In the last 5-6 years, we have become part of several significant global organizations and actively participate in the events organized by them. Since 2019, the “Eter” museum has been part of the Forum for Slavic Cultures, and in 2022 it became the winner of one of the two major “Ziva” awards presented by this organization. In 2017, the museum was registered as a member of the Bulgarian National Committee of the International Council of Museums (Bulgarian National Committee of ICOM). The organization ICOM (International Council of Museums) unites 172 committees, 35,000 members and 20,000 museums. In 2016, we renewed relations with the European Association of Open-air Museums (Association of European Open-air Museums) and the following year the museum became its institutional member. In 2017, during the General Conference of the 39th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, the city of Gabrovo was chosen as a creative city of crafts and folk art. “Eter” Museum is actively involved in preparing Gabrovo’s candidacy for inclusion in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. In the same year, 2017, the “Eter” museum joined the partner network of the “Michelangelo” Foundation for Creativity and Crafts. The international non-profit organization “Michelangelo” stimulates and promotes the masterful and creative approach in the making of various products. REMO “Eter” is the only Bulgarian organization and the first museum in the partner network so far.
– Museum “Eter” preserves and carries over time many of the traditions of our country. Today, how do you manage to engage your visitors in an interactive and interesting way, telling them about life in the past?
– Visitors are active participants, not just observers. There are many opportunities for them to make sense of the time spent in the museum in an interesting way. Let’s start with the setting. If you cross the gate, you enter a world different from today’s – the world of the renaissance Bulgarians. All senses are engaged in the unique experience. The possibilities for this are fun and full of content. The Learn and Experience Creative Experience Ticket is suitable for visitors aged 12+. It provides an opportunity for a more in-depth introduction to a craft of your choice (cotton-making, bagpipe-making, mufti-making, pottery, musical instrument-making, icon painting, fur-dressing, wood-turning) and an opportunity to test your dexterity. You can take the items you made as a souvenir. If you have a desire to learn about the specifics of a home occupation of your choice (making a braided decoration, knitting with corn husks, dyeing yarn, making a felt decoration), to test your skills in making a product with your own hands, you can take creative experience ticket “Find what you’re good at”. The “Herbs – Beauty and Health” experience ticket gives you the opportunity to create your own designer soap. A ticket with a creative experience “From the woolen thread to the cloth and pots” is suitable for school groups aged 7 to 15 years. Thematic walks – The richness of the Revival architecture, The traditional Gabrovo dwelling, The traditional technical facilities of water, The world of crafts, The calendar cycle in traditional culture, The Balkan dairies and The sack house are suitable for families, schoolchildren, students and adults. To help teachers and so that students can more easily and in an accessible way learn the topics of the Bulgarian Renaissance, art and architecture during this period, traditional holidays and customs, folk art and crafts, we have prepared thematic lessons in accordance with the curricula of the Ministry of education and science. We have several such programs that we are upgrading and with them we are provoking the interest of new generations in the tradition. The most attractive ones are “School of lazarkas”, “School of carolers”, “In the world of Staroplanin architecture”, “I know and I can”.
– Do you use the possibilities of technology as a tool in the presentation of new exhibitions and projects, as well as to arouse the interest of younger visitors?
– Yes, new technologies are a very important element for presenting our preserved cultural heritage to younger audiences. Digital devices add to our narrative of the past and are part of almost every exhibit we have. We manage to fit them in unobtrusively, while at the same time being visible enough for visitors to use. Through the possibilities of modern technologies, we have presented the division between men’s and women’s work characteristic of the past, how disappearing or already extinct crafts were practiced. The museum has a very stable presence on the Internet – a modern and constantly updated website, a Facebook page with about 30,000 followers, profiles on Instagram and TikTok, a YouTube channel. We publish information related to museum activity everywhere and people learn about many of the events from these information channels of ours.
– Museum “Eter” is included under number 19 in the National movement “Know Bulgaria – 100 tourist sites”. Do you have any idea how many people take stamps or if they do it often if specific statistics are hard to come by? Are there many foreigners among them?
– There is no way to keep official statistics on this indicator, since a person comes to the cash desk in the museum, takes out the booklet, which is stamped. Lots of people do, but not everyone buys a brand. From the beginning of 2023 until November 3, 3409 stamps were sold. This is the only certain figure that can be named. Among the visitors there are Bulgarians and foreigners, but the majority are our compatriots.
– Do you have a book with which you collect stamps and will you go to the next level – to collect digital stamps as well (if we can afford this play with the language of the younger ones)?
– Once in my youth I had such a book and it was quite provocative and fun to collect stamps in it. Today in Bulgaria there are over 170 museums and numerous archaeological sites. I have visited almost all of them, not only because of professional interest, but also because of an inner need to accumulate historical knowledge. I admit that stamp collecting influenced my choice of a museum profession.
– What do you think about the project implemented by BTS and Yettel to digitize the National Movement “Know Bulgaria – 100 Tourist Sites”? What part of it do you find most useful?
– The project reveals an aspiration to modernize the National Movement “Know Bulgaria – 100 tourist sites”, through the methods of digitization. I find it useful overall. The inclusion of a certain museum in the list of 100 tourist sites is a guarantee of its importance, and presenting it in a more attractive way makes it even more attractive to visit.
– Can you share interesting facts from the life of the museum – e.g. how many visitors do you have annually, what are the most interesting projects and exhibitions over the years, are film productions filmed at your place?
– Museum “Eter” receives about 200,000 visitors a year. In 2019, the number exceeded 226,000, but the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to a decrease. Our team is actively working and the audience has started to return. We aim to reach this annual number of visitors again by offering events and activities that make sense of people’s time dedicated to Ether Museum. The biggest challenge now is to finish the project “REMO “Eter” – a museum for creative cultural tourism”, thanks to which the museum objects – the buildings on the bazaar, the hotel, the water facilities – are being restored and conserved, but completely new ones are also being built – a modern children’s center, for example. This project opens up huge opportunities for the development of the museum, new spaces are opened – for example, the Krastnikkolchov Inn, which is the largest building in the museum, but until now performed functions that did not allow visitors to enter it. There are now new exhibition spaces, various events are about to take place. Only a few weeks left until the opening of this object. Very interesting for tourists are the second floors of the houses on the bazaar, which were also inaccessible to the public for the most part. Their opening makes it possible, with a traditional or a less traditional approach, to present exhibitions and expositions dedicated to disappearing crafts, women and their world in the past, rural and urban housing. On the second floor of one of the houses, you can see a reconstruction of the office of the first director of the museum, Lazar Donkov, but an important place is also dedicated to the statuette of Ziva, presented to us at a big international ceremony in Belgrade by the Forum for Slavic Cultures Foundation – an organization in which many important cultural institutions from different countries are members. Over the years, various video productions have been filmed on the territory of the museum, but we are already turning down such requests, as it is necessary to close access to the public, which is unacceptable to us.
– What is coming up in the Museum’s Event Calendar until the end of the year?
– During the year, 27 large events of a national and regional nature and many smaller ones are held in the “Eter” museum. In November, our “Carolling School” begins, in which the participants will perform a reenactment at the museum on December 26 and show what they have learned. December 12 is St. Spyridon—patron of artisans, and that’s when the exhibition “Ethnolens: Fair of Crafts” was opened. I remind your readers that the museum does not have a day off and is only open on Christmas Day and January 1st with reduced working hours. The hours can be seen on our website etar.bg.