THE GOAL: Ekaterina Tsekova, the museum’s director, wants to turn the site into an open cultural centre where visitors can interact with the artifacts and suggest how to promote the museum further.
HIGHLIGHT: A central place in the collection of motor vehicles is occupied by a three-cart Messerschmidt KP 200 produced in 1952 in Germany by airplane factory Messerschmidt. Another interesting item is a Ford A model, produced in 1928. The luxury limousine was reconstructed with the help of experts from Ford’s dealer for Bulgaria Moto-Pfohe.
The museum holds the only complete collection of mining lamps used in Bulgaria from ancient times until today. The collection includes almost 70 mining lamps from clay lamps – identical to household ones – used in the old Thracian mines up to the special types for working under danger of “grizu” gas and protective and indicative lamps.
The Pancharevo water power plant in Kokalyane village just outside Sofia is also among the museum’s items. It was put in operation on 1900 which was the start of the public electricity supply in Bulgaria. It has been in use since the 1980s.
The collection of phones includes wall-type, table-type and military phones from the beginning of the 20th century. An interesting item is the two operational cupboards from a numerator for 600 telephone numbers of Siemens - 1930, operational until the middle of 2000 in the Court Palace in Sofia.
The National Polytechnic Museum in Sofia is a longstanding site but in the shadow of its more celebrated siblings, such as the National History Museum or the Archaeological Museum. Many people in Sofia will know of the museum’s existence but few could name its whereabouts.
I’ve contemplated visiting this mysterious place for years. After the democratic changes in 1989, the museum was moved into the building of the former museum of communist leader Georgi Dimitrov. I was interested to see how the museum and its exhibits had survived.
I’ve always found museums fascinating ever since schooldays when we made group visits with teachers. Many of my classmates found these trips tedious because of long lectures from curators and our enforced silence. For me, however, museum visits were always a thrilling leap into the unknown. Inspecting artifacts and reading accompanying explanatory descriptions was always fun for me.
A small oasis
It is not difficult to find the National Polytechnic Museum. It’s between Slivnitsa Boulevard, Opulchenska Street and Tsar Simeon Street, in an area that still contains some of the feel of early 20th century Sofia: old buildings, narrow pavements and broken fences. A large sign on top of the museum welcomes you. Once inside, you are greeted by a wide green oasis of century-old trees, bushes and grass, stone alleys, benches and a small fountain.
This small oasis in the centre of Sofia has been built for one simple reason. It was the home of the first communist leader of Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov. His two houses are still there, as well as a statue of his mother, which, ideology aside, is a fine sculpture. Due to lack of funds, the houses have been kept in a rather charming state of dilapidation. Unfortunately, they are closed to the public.
At the far end of the garden is the massive communist-style building of the National Polytechnic Museum, built in the 1970s. Long and wide corridors, high ceilings and thick walls welcome the visitor.
The exhibition includes representations of various technologies and devices. Only a small part of the collection is on display because of space constraints. Fortunately, curators rotate the exhibits as often as possible. Many pertain to certain Bulgarian scientists, engineers, inventors, mechanics and professors who contributed to Bulgaria’s technological advancement after its liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878.
These include clock-maker Georgi Hadjinikolov – the first Bulgarian to graduate from a Swiss clock-making school – and engineer Evgeni Mairovich – a great contributor to Bulgarian mining, especially in the field of mining lamps. Others featured are Marin Bachevarov – Bulgaria’s first astronomy professor –
and inventor Krum Genus who in the 1960s designed the only Bulgarian electronic organ.
Besides the exhibitions, the museum organises many educational programmes, demonstrations and discussions. The management has ties with innumerable associations as well as state and private institutions and the media. A sponsor has helped to build a demonstration room in one of the exhibition halls, where students can get practical education in chemistry, physics and ecology.
Educational programmes follow the school curriculum but also add practical experiments in which all visitors can take part. Some of the experiments are conducted like games, contributing a fairytale-like feeling. The demonstration room is often involved in projects sponsored by foreign embassies and cultural centres with the help of young scientists who act as facilitators between the technology and the children.
A few months ago a special guest was the first female Bulgarian pilot Orlina Asparouhova. Her visit was organised with the help of the Union of Bulgarian civil aviation veterans. A special moment at the event was a replica of the French Mongolfier brothers’ hot air balloon, donated by the French Institute in Sofia with the help of Caroline de Poncins, wife of French ambassador Etienne de Poncins. The balloon was left on display at the museum.
The museum’s garden was recently the venue of a spectacular thunder and lightning chemistry show. This was organised by a group of students from leading high schools and universities in Bulgaria. During Museum Night, an open-door event held in May, the garden also staged an astronomy event organised by the Sofia Astronomical Association.
At the museum’s heart is its small group of expert employees, such as curator Svetozara Radeva, who contributed to this article. The museum’s director, Ekaterina Tsekova, has also dedicated herself to preserving and developing the exhibits. "We aim to turn our museum into an open cultural centre where visitors can interact with the heritage on display and offer ideas on how it can be further advertised," she said.
"We know how other world-renowned technical museums are developing and we are not afraid to compare ourselves to them," she said, noting that the museum is the place to promote Bulgarian scientific achievements as well as being a lucrative source of income.
On my second visit to the museum, I brought my 11-year-old son who was impressed with the building’s size. After exploring the exhibition halls he was bursting with questions about the numerous gadgets and what mankind would invent next. After all, museums enlighten us about the past but also offer us a glimpse into the future.
Address: 66 Opulchenska Str, Sofia
Open: Monday to Friday
On weekends the museum is open only to pre-arranged group visits
Entrance fee: five leva
(children and pensioners free)
The entrance fee for students is two leva
Tour guides available in English.