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US and Bulgarian Museum Experts Explore the Future of Presenting the Past at Sofia Conference

Bulgaria has a rich and varied cultural heritage, ranging from prehistoric pottery to Thracian gold treasures to folk art to contemporary paintings. How do Bulgarian museums present this heritage? What new techniques and technologies could help them reach even wider audiences, at home and around the world? Seventeen lecturers and nearly 200 participants – museum specialists, artists, restorers, architects, academics and representatives of the IT sector from around Bulgaria and the Balkans –  discussed these and other questions at the international conference “Museum Exhibits and Standards: A Look Ahead” on November 28-29, 2016, held in Sofia. The conference was organized by the Bulgarian-American Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange and its partner organizations from the Bi-National Commission for the Preservation of Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage.

The conference featured US museum experts as keynote speakers. Kara Blond, Director of Exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, talked about the future of museum exhibitions at her institution as well as around the world. Dr. Adam Nilsen, Head of Education and Interpretation at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, shared his experience on “humanizing” museum exhibits by using the stories of real individuals, by engaging the local community in creating exhibits,  and by making transparent the role of the real humans (i.e. curators) who create a given exhibit. Nathalie Ryan, Senior Educator & Manager, Department of Gallery and Studio Learning, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, shared her institution’s experience with “cultivating curiosity” in museum audiences of all ages and walks of life.

The conference and US guests were met with great interest from Bulgarian audiences and institutions, as the packed auditorium showed. Dr. Adam Nilsen and Kara Blond as well as Fulbright ED Angela Rodel were featured guests on the popular morning show “The Day Begins with Culture” on Bulgarian National Television, where they discussed the conference and their work.

The US Ambassador to Bulgaria, HE Eric Rubin, and Dr. Bonnie Petrunova, Deputy Minister of Culture opened the conference, noting that the preservation of cultural heritage and the sharing of museum best practices for presenting this heritage was sphere where the United States and Bulgaria could cooperate more closely. The first panel “Best Practices in Designing Events and Educational Programs Dedicated to Cultural Heritage” provided examples of successful educational programming from US and Bulgarian museums ranging from art galleries to science centers to history museums. One question that arose during the discussion was to what extent such programming should be aimed primarily at children or should try to encompass families or multi-generational audiences. “The Future of Digital Expositions and Mobile Applications for Stimulating Cultural Tourism” introduced participants to new technologies that are being developed and used in Bulgaria and around the world, with an emphasis on low-cost ways for museums to receive training in such technologies and to make their collections digitally available. In “Contemporary Tendencies in Museum Exhibition or How to Impress Visitors of All Ages,” Bulgarian and American speakers offered advice and examples of successful programming, which sparked a lively Q&A session. Bulgarian museum specialists were keen to ask questions of their American counterparts or to provide examples from their own experience. On the evening of November 28, all conference participants enjoyed wine and refreshments at a cocktail reception held in the stunning main hall of the National Archeological Museum, where Deputy Chief of Mission from the US Embassy Martina Strong greeted the audience.

After the conference, the Municipality of Plovdiv graciously hosted the US lecturers on a day-trip to the city, where they visited the newly renovated Archeological and Natural History Museums, as well as toured the historic Old Town of Plovdiv. Deputy Mayor for Culture Amelia Gesheva hosted the group for lunch and a discussion of the city’s cultural heritage and museum programming, especially in connection with its upcoming role as European Capital of Culture in 2019.

The Bi-National Commission for the Preservation of Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage was established as an outgrowth of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Bulgaria in January of 2015. During this visit, Secretary Kerry announced that education and culture was one of a number of key areas in which the US and Bulgaria would engage in strategic dialogue. The goal of the cultural preservation commission is to bring together experts from diverse fields dealing with tangible and intangible cultural heritage and to identify projects worthy of preservation and to work with American specialists to identify and recommend best practices for such preservation efforts. The new commission was placed under the auspices of the Bulgarian-American Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange. Its members include leading experts in tangle and intangible cultural heritage, museum directors, representatives of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Tourism, the Bulgarian-American Fulbright Commission, and US Embassy representatives. In the wake of the success of its first major undertaking and given the strong interest on the part of Bulgarian institutions in American best practices in the field of museum studies and cultural heritage, the bi-national commission hopes to make use of the momentum and connections created and to continue its work with a publication of conference proceedings and practical seminars with American experts for cultural heritage and museum specialists.