Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sofia Archeological Museum

There are lots of good things about new museums. Exhibits are well captioned. There is room for busloads of school kids to mill around. The temperature, humidity and light is carefully controlled to protect the artifacts. In some cases, innovative new learning techniques are employed, including multimedia displays.

But there's a unique charm to old museums. When you stand in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo looking at a 5,000 year old mummy, the gracious old 1835 building makes you feel like you're back in the 19th century discovering dynastic Egypt. If the lights are a bit dim or flicker, or if some of the displays are piled a bit haphazardly in the old wooden display cases, it only adds to the experience.

When the Louvre and British Museum were renovated a couple of decades ago they gained a lot, but they also lost a lot. My favorite part of the old Louvre was the Egyptian section in the basesment - narrow, uneven corridors crammed with stuff. As a kid, when I walked between the two big sculptures of Isis and Osiris I believed I felt a frisson of energy passing between them. In the old British Museum, just past the Elgin Marbles, there was an unmarked staircase leading into a basement that had hundreds of piles of unmarked broken statuary, including a giant toe (taller than me) that hinted at a sculpture bigger than physically possible.

Two more of my favorite museums were renovated within the last few years and I'm afraid to go back to them: the prehistory museum in Les Eyzies, France, and the National Museum in Nairobi, Kenya. Have they been improved? Undoubtedly. Are they as charming and evocative as they used to be? Probably not.

The Archeological Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria is unimproved in the best sense of the word. Built in the 19th century in a 15th century mosque, it has a collection of human-made artifacts dating back over a million years. (A million!) It has the oldest pottery and glass I've ever seen, and the oldest gold objects I've seen other than (I think) the exhibit at the National Museum of History in Bucharest. Certainly the gold artifacts are the largest I've ever seen. They have a solid gold bowl that is over a foot high, a couple of big gold masks and other large ceremonial gold objects. There's something thrilling about prehistoric gold artifacts. The color and texture has a depth unmatched by anything else, and you know that the pieces were powerful ceremonial objects when the idea of religion was still evolving. They evoked awe, and still do.

The collection is outstanding and wonderfully displayed. Looking at artifacts you might think: This is something that Homer would have been familiar with, or: Alexander the Great would have revered this as an antique. And you also feel some resonance of the Victorian amateur historians who treaded the same old floorboards.


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