NYT: A Children’s Museum Comes to Bulgaria
By GEORGI KANTCHEV
New York Times
SOFIA — The recent U.S. government shutdown forced many of the most-visited American sights, from the Statue of Liberty to the Smithsonian museums, to temporarily close their doors. For children and their parents, though, there was a long list of alternatives: There are more than 400 children's museums scattered across the country, most of them private.
Traditionally an American invention, children's museums are now also becoming an American export. The America for Bulgaria Foundation, a charity in Sofia backed by the U.S. government, is financing one of the first children's museums in Eastern Europe. A New York firm, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, has been commissioned to design the $15 million project, which will be called Muzeiko and is set to be completed in 2015 in the Bulgarian capital.
"We see our museum as a revolution in Bulgaria," Bistra Kirova, the museum's director, said in an interview here.
It is a revolution badly needed in country where "there is no real policy aimed at children," Mrs. Kirova said.
The uneasy transition from communism to democracy in East European countries like Bulgaria strongly influenced their public education and arts systems.
Before 1989, when Bulgaria became a democracy, state-funded schools were largely focused on technical training rather than on the liberal arts. In this system, museums were largely disconnected from youth and were seen as places to house relics, rather than as interactive educational environments. Tough financial conditions in the 1990s also led to years of unsuccessful reforms. Only recently has Bulgaria shifted its approach to a more Western style of education and arts appreciation.
"In Bulgaria the element of interactive education is completely missing — something very common in the U.S. where many children visit museums and take classes there," Mrs. Kirova said. Her team was inspired by the Western hands-on approach of children's museums, where "kids can touch, try and understand how everything works.
"If children in Bulgaria enter museums at all, they are often sent away so that they do not touch or break anything," she added.
Muzeiko aims to break away from that model by transforming a former laboratory in the university precinct of Studentski Grad into a 3,250-square-meter, or 35,000-square-foot, interactive learning space. Its centerpiece will be a tree made of glass, plastic and steel that rises through all three levels of the building's interior.
"The whole museum is organized around the idea of moving through time and space," said Lee Skolnick, the founder of the architectural firm, which also created the DiMenna Children's History Museum in New York, among several other cultural venues for children.
The lowest level, where the tree has roots, will house "the past" with exhibitions in archaeology, geology and paleontology. Children will be able to put on a safety helmet and dig out samples of rocks and minerals like stalactites and stalagmites that they can then analyze in a lab with experts.
On the ground floor visitors will find "the present," represented by displays about the natural environment, architecture and cities. The top floor will be dedicated to "the future" with interactive exhibitions about space travel and cutting-edge technologies.
Another defining feature of the museum will be the building itself, which will be made predominantly out of glass.
"We wanted it to represent something very new and inviting for families," Mr. Skolnick said. But he also has a more ambitious vision for his building: "Many of the buildings in Bulgaria are very closed, and we want to leave an impression of openness and of being transparent of what we are doing, both physically and also metaphorically."
The museum's architectural theme is called "Little Mountains," an allusion to the mountainous topography of the surrounding city of Sofia. The structure's glass box will be broken up by three sculptural forms, or "mountains," with each one representing a reference, through its color scheme and texture, to indigenous cultural traditions in the country.
One of the mountainous forms is inspired by textile patterns and embroidery, another one by engraved ceramics and the third one is influenced by traditional wood carving.
"The juxtaposition of the glass box on the one hand and the sculptural forms on the other, will give a nice balance between recognizing that we are in Bulgaria but also that we are in the modern world, in modern Bulgaria," Mr. Skolnick said.
The idea for the museum stemmed from a smaller-scale America for Bulgaria project that sought to develop "children's corners" in existing museums. Since 2010, such areas were created in museums across the country, attracting visitors and a high level of interest, said Mrs. Kirova, Muzeiko's director. "So we decided to start something bigger — a children's museum following the American model."
Besides Mr. Skolnick's team, the foundation is working with about 30 local experts and scientists to shape the design of the exhibits. The main target group is 5- to 11 -year-olds, but the museum will also have a toddler's area.
The America for Bulgaria Foundation was founded in Sofia in 2008 as a successor to the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund, an investment group created in the early 1990s through the U.S. Agency for International Development. The foundation projects about 100,000 visitors a year, a significant portion of whom will be tourists.
But it is the locals in Bulgaria who seem most excited about the prospect of a children's museum in their country.
"Raising a child in Bulgaria is not easy, partly because there are so few kids-friendly things to do here," said Rositsa Mitova, 32, as she pushed her baby son in a stroller with her 11-year-old daughter at her side. Ms. Mitova said that by the time the museum opens, her daughter will probably be too old for it. But looking inside the stroller, she said, "it will be ready for my son's childhood."
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