Сряда, 10 Октомври 2018 17:12

Heritage “Renovation” or Who and What Makes us Heirs

Georgi Valchev

Abstract: The article follows the political, ideological and economic aspects of the processes of selection, recognition and construction of cultural heritage. The analysis reflects the multi-layered relations between the local communities and institutions, the political elites on a central level, and the experts in building policies for the protection of the past. It criticizes the lack of strategies and sustainable funding schemes; the latter resulting in establishing a Cultural Heritage Forum, whose aims and tasks are a subject of discussion in the text.

Keywords: cultural heritage, cultural policies, Cultural Heritage Forum


Recently a curious story has been circulated by all international news sites. With some delay it was published by the major Bulgarian sites as well. It was reported that in the United Kingdom, during a property auction of the estate from a hereditary house, an old, non-working wristwatch was purchased for the huge sum of nearly 55 000 pounds.

The heir of the estate expected to receive no more than 500 pounds for the useless item, since he knew from his late father that this watch was quite old. His parent got it many years ago at a similar street sale for about 10 pounds. He used it for a long time, and after the watch stopped working, it ended up at the bottom of one of the drawers of the family cabinet.

When it turned out that its real sales value exceeded more than one hundred times the expected, it became clear that the watch was actually part of a limited series of 618 waterproof Rolex Panerai 3636 produced between 1941 and 1943 for the needs of the Italian army divers during the Second World War. They were made by the Italian company Panerai, which used Rolex’s original mechanism to make them and nowadays finding one of these watches is a real rarity. The watch’s appearance in post-war England seems to be due to the fact that it was probably taken as a souvenir by British soldiers at the end of the Second World War.

Similar stories periodically turn into media sensations – one can often read, for example, that a simple looking bowl that stood for decades on a family mantelpiece turned out to be a rare Chinese porcelain from the era of a renowned Emperor dynasty or that a similar vase has been used by its current owners to keep the door of the garden porch open in summer. Sometimes paintings by world-renowned artists that were considered destroyed or irretrievably lost have been discovered accidentally at the attic of an old house, and after long arguments, art historians have recognized their authenticity. Old musical instruments used in some families for the first music lessons of their young children have turned out to be the work of renowned Italian masters, and jewels considered by their owners to be good imitations have later been recognized as originals with considerable value.

If we go back to the case of the damaged Rolex Panerai 3636, which started this text, we must acknowledge the obvious fact that this old, useless object has become a true legacy for the late Englishman’s son thanks to a relatively small community of Swiss watches collectors, and in particular the Rolex fans, who have expertise in this type of Swiss-specific production. These are people who are deliberately interested in the history of the watch industry, and who have been collecting information about its origins, and the stages through which human kind has gone in its efforts to measure ever more precisely such a relative concept as time. They have a clear understanding of the practical needs and benefits that have generated such an intellectual effort, and have managed to get to monstrously little details about the development of the most famous companies and brands involved in the manufacturing of watches and various clockwork mechanisms. If this small expert community did not already know about the existence of Rolex’s limited “military” series, the son-heir who never even considered that the timeworn obscure watch is one of the rare productions of the renowned brand, would have hardly recognized this particular unnecessary rag as heritage. For him, the watch, along with the other personal belongings and furniture in his late father's home, were more of a burden than of any real value.

Certainly, in his personal memory, certain objects will have some emotional value, as they will probably relate to various memories and important family events. Their specific financial dimension would not matter for him, and for this reason he will try to preserve the more important among them, turning them into a part of his own material world. They will represent his true personal heritage.

Like this Englishman, each individual, being part of a community (family, kin, ethnic, religious, cultural, national, etc.), has some initial idea of the value characteristics of heritage. However, its real value, beyond the financial, can only be outlined by a number of other expert communities who are professionally engaged in the study and reconstruction of the past.

If we take again the case of the non-working watch, to the collectors’ expert community we should add, for example, the specialists who study the trade relations between the Tripartite Pact and the other national economies (Rolex is the company that created the first waterproof wristwatch Oyster in 1926). We should not miss also the military historians, who thanks to this type of waterproof watches can add important details to the equipment and combat capabilities of the diving troops of the Italian Navy during the Second World War, since it was as early as 1914 that the Kew Observatory awarded the company with a certificate of precision for its fleet chronometers. We can expand this circle of experts by adding specialists who explore innovations in the field of fine mechanics and who could describe Rolex’s technological contributions to the development of this kind of watches...

The list of the different types of experts can, of course, be extended, but even this quick account convincingly shows that the cultural characteristics of heritage are a complex world. Its real dimensions can be outlined in their approximation only by people who possess the necessary specialized knowledge and professional skills because this world is a product of the past, which exists in the present only partially through its surviving signs.[1]

As a public resource, cultural heritage is part of the lives of present-day societies and individuals and reflects their current understanding of its significance. Over time, attitudes towards it have evolved alongside societies’ internal changes and the accumulation of expertise, especially in periods of radical social, political and cultural transformations.

For example, right after the Liberation of Bulgaria, the iconographic Orthodox tradition of the Revival era, which followed the principles of medieval Byzantine aesthetics, was denounced by the leading names in our artistic life at the time Anton Mitov and Ivan Murvichka as “the most glamorous denial, and the crudest ridicule of any form of art”,[2] but later its importance has been vindicated by the next generation of researchers.[3]

The original attitude towards Revival architecture, perceived as a symbol of the Ottoman heritage that must be overcome, is no different, and, according to Arch. Pencho Koichev, our post-liberation society then “is possessed by apathy towards the old picturesque forms of dwelling and characterizes them all with the words TURKISH or RURAL”.[4] He himself, by studying the house of Ivan Stoykov-Trojan in Pordim, where in 1877 the headquarters of the Russian Army was briefly located and where the Russian emperor resided, is one of the first Bulgarian architects to appreciate the achievements of the Balkan (respectively Bulgarian) 19th century residential architecture, naturally harmonizing with the local natural and climatic conditions.[5]

Just these two examples from the Bulgarian reality after the Liberation are sufficient to confirm the argument that many societies and individuals, especially in times of transition, do not adequately recognize their own cultural heritage. By virtue of specific political, ideological, economic or other reasons, they try to overcome or ignore part of it. Instead, they gaze compulsively towards various periods of the past, trying to legitimize the direction of change they have chosen and the burden of the hurdles expecting them along the way they need to follow. This is why cultural heritage has for a long time been the subject of legal regulation and protection not only nationally but also internationally. As an important public resource, the sustainability of the policies in this delicate field is guaranteed by a number of international and national institutions that have enough expertise to monitor, document, protect and promote cultural heritage. When these institutions and their expert communities are able to publicise the results of their work in a convincing way, then society becomes more sensitive towards current problems in this field and the number of individuals who recognize the collective cultural heritage as personal increases. On the contrary, the more the existence of these institutions is questioned and the role of the different expert communities is understated, the stronger the public opinion becomes that the complex issues about cultural heritage are nothing more than another intellectual speculation by a narrow circle of people trying guarantee their own survival.

In its modern development as an independent state, Bulgaria has undergone three radical social transformations that have an impact on collective attitudes towards cultural heritage. Although the etatist approach has always dominated, including today, (that is, figuratively speaking, the state is the one that has transformed us and continues to make us heirs), each of these transitions has a different effect on collective attitudes towards the past.

During the first transition, related to the political separation from the Ottoman Empire and the general urge for Europeanization of Bulgarian culture, the so-called “Ottoman heritage” was generally speaking underestimated. When its obsessive presence could not be overcome in one way or another, the processes of its “Bulgarisation” began – a trend that was persistent, albeit with varying intensity, in the next two periods too.

Тhe second transition, beginning in the final stage of the Second World War when Bulgaria became part of the Soviet zone of influence, was marked by the imposition of the general principles of the communist ideology as officially dominating society and by the transition from capitalist to socialist socio-economic relations. In general, this period was marked by purposeful attempts to ignore the “bourgeois” (the symbol of a “decadent culture”) and the “religious heritage” (religion considered in the perspective of communist ideology as “opium of the peoples”), but these attempts gradually decreased and at a later stage this heritage was even partially rehabilitated, under certain conditions.

We are currently in the years of the third transition, which directed the public interest mainly towards the day-to-day political and economic problems of our country. At the centre of the public debates were issues most often related to the further fate of the political mastodon Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), the reorganization of the planned socialist economy into market, the new foreign policy of our country after the breakup of the Eastern bloc... The past, insofar as it is regarded as something constant in popular thought, went in the background and its signs entered the discussion only when the symbols of the communist regime, that had fallen in front of our eyes, were to be defended or removed.

Across the country massive processes for renaming streets and squares, schools and businesses, dismantling of monuments and memorial signs began with the idea that the break up with the totalitarian period required their “museumification”.[6] Some of them were simply left at the will of robbers and gradual ruin, as their scale astounded even the most obvious opponents of the past totalitarian period. It is enough to recall the epic around the destruction of the mausoleum of the former Communist “leader and teacher of the Bulgarian people”, which was shovelled out from the centre of Sofia with extreme difficulty after an unsuccessful first attempt at its detonation by a hired specialized sapper brigade. The spectacular action, closely followed by the media, later served as an occasion for Ivan Mudov’s ingenious artistic provocation, with which he managed to awaken again the forgotten memory of this symbolic event.[7]

Unfortunately, the raging public passions about the recent past were projected on the thinking of the new political elites about the past in general. To a large extent the past lost its public significance as a source of knowledge about human development and as a collective memory, forming different types of identities. Instead, it began to be used primarily to legitimize various political and economic projects, acquiring, in the understanding of contemporary politicians, essentially practical or purely material dimensions.

As a result of these processes, the long-established system for studying and preserving the cultural heritage in Bulgaria collapsed within a short period of time, and its professionals, who defended the principles of professionalism and expertise, were forced to survive in the conditions of permanent compromises and humiliating funding of their activities. In the country, organized treasure hunters began to plunder and remain almost completely unpunished, causing irreparable damage to important archaeological sites,[8] symbolic artefacts began to disappear from public museum collections,[9] and in the urban landscapes, separate emblematic buildings or complete architectural ensembles were removed.[10] The very fact that a new Law on Cultural Heritage was accepted two decades after the beginning of the transition in Bulgaria speaks eloquently about the attitude of the state and the political elite, underestimating the complex problems of the past and the delicate integration of its surviving signs into the contemporary living environment.

It is only in the recent years that state authorities have become aware that the long absence of a comprehensive national strategy in the field of cultural heritage and the chronic underfunding of conservation policies can be partly compensated by using part of the European funding under the different operational programs. With the idea that cultural heritage will become a factor for the sustainable development of local communities and regions and will contribute to the development of cultural tourism, a number of projects related to its conservation, restoration and development of accompanying tourist infrastructure have taken place in the last few years. Against the backdrop of long years of almost total inaction and ruin, this was a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, however, this step was made with the defects typical for project funding. The short deadlines for completing the activities on the selected sites often did not allow for a normal archaeological study to be carried out, the design usually preceded its completion and did not adequately reflect the different historical stages of existence of individual cultural monuments, poor quality materials and low-skilled labour were widely used. As a result of this frantic “absorption” of funding from European funds a standardized “model” approach was enforced that did not consider the specificity and uniqueness of each individual site; there was a strive to achieve the volume of construction activity justifying the pledged financial parameters and thus in many places in the country hypothetical reconstruction prevailed over authenticity and respect for the original. In short, buttafuoria killed professionalism, but, what is even worse, it has been imposed in the public eye by its ideologists as a norm with the frankly false argument that “they do it like this all over Europe”. People and local communities have been convinced that the newer, the more complete the selected sites look, just like the partially or fully renovated panel blocks, the more these sites will contribute to the development of cultural tourism in the region and will help revitalize the local economy.  

Ил. 1. Изграденият от итонг официален вход на Калето край Мездра, чиято фасада вече се лющи.


Fig. 1. The ytong-built official entrance of the kale near Mezdra, whose façade is already peeling.

Fig. 2. The fully built “tower-chapel” of the fortress near Peshtera, whose name is not found in the historical sources and which is “named” by the designer of the site “Peristera” arch. Furkov.

This gross violation of contemporary approaches to the preservation of cultural heritage, which have been confirmed by many international documents, provoked the acute reaction of professional communities (archaeologists, architects, art historians, restorers and consevrators, academics, various representatives of the tourism industry, etc.) who have tried to defend professionalism in the field of their own, narrowly specialized competencies. However, instead of listening to their reasonable arguments and taking them into account in the implementation of European funding projects, some of their prominent representatives were demonized in the media and the institutions responsible for monitoring the compliance with the legislation on immovable cultural heritage were pointed out as places that only generate corruption practices.

Fortunately, this public opposition also had positive consequences. Along with the utter slander and the frankly false lies and untrue statements made about expert communities and specialized institutions, it succeeded in raising public interest about the important issues of cultural heritage and the role of the past in the lives of modern societies. Overcoming the negative results of wrong decisions has gradually become the cause of a much wider range of people genuinely engaged in the preservation of cultural heritage. The most prominent manifestation of this increased public interest and publicly declared civilian position took place at the public discussion of another “model” project with European funding in Plovdiv, which would have deprived this millennial cultural centre and its specific cultural landscape of its authenticity, turning one of its emblems – Nebet tepe – in a third-rate tourist attraction.[11]

The other positive outcome was the consolidation of the entire expert community, which gradually united around the idea that it was necessary to coordinate its efforts in order to maintain successfully its professional principles. This resulted in a significant event – the creation of the Cultural Heritage Forum within the framework of the “Authenticity at Risk” conference held on 29 May 2015. The conference ended with the acceptance of a special Declaration to the Bulgarian authorities and the European institutions, and the signing of a Memorandum of Joint Activity regulating the open nature of the Cultural Heritage Forum as an informal voluntary community of equal partners and associates who share common concerns, goals and tasks. In general, they can be summarized as follows:

- Bulgarian cultural heritage is threatened to be irremediably damaged by the growing present practice of constructing fictional bogus versions of Bulgarian cultural sites which have been only partially preserved; their present reconstruction – restoration “to the tower” and “to the tile” – is based solely on assumptions and is an inadmissible falsification of the truth about their original, destroying the authenticity of the cultural properties;

- there is a gross violation of the principles, methods and ethics of modern conservation and restoration, according to which authenticity is a fundamental quality of the site, making it a precious historical testimony which must be passed on to future generations in its entire richness as a “window to history”;

- current practices are in contradiction with the international conventions ratified by Bulgaria and with the Bulgarian Cultural Heritage Act, which requires “maximum preservation of authenticity” of cultural properties, as well as with a number of other international documents and charters;

- reconstruction decisions are not made in a transparent way, often they are taken only on a political level, without professional and expert debate, this puts at risk the development of expertise and professionalism in the preservation of cultural heritage, established 50 years ago with the professional code of restoration – the Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites;

- the national heritage conservation policy becomes deformed, as its priority is the new construction of fictitious “monuments” in which hundreds of millions of Bulgarian levs are invested, at the expense of nearly 40,000 authentic Bulgarian sites maintained with an extremely inadequate annual state subsidy of half a million levs;

- a misconception is created about the successful development of contemporary cultural tourism – the public is being convinced that a cultural site can only become “attractive” if it is “lifted up” in bogus size, while sustainable cultural tourism preserves the authenticity of cultural heritage;

- innovative architectural creativity used for the interpretation and presentation of cultural heritage, through the application of the most modern creative methods and technologies, is underestimated; instead only models made of stone and concrete are being promoted as successful examples of fictitious “monuments”;

- in order to overcome these defects the immediate initiation of dialogue and partnership is required between the state, the public and the expert communities about the fate of the Bulgarian immovable cultural heritage;

- a comprehensive review of the legislation and regulations in the field of cultural heritage is required as well as the development of a comprehensive state strategy with maximum expert and public participation;

- scientific conservation and restoration in full compliance with international documents and with the principles and methods for preserving authenticity should be applied to all cultural properties in order to transform cultural properties into products of sustainable cultural tourism with respect and care for the surviving original;

- public authorities should provide timely, publicly announced, prior information about any intentions for interventions in cultural sites, this information should be used for the purposes of a scientific and professional debate;

- participation in all projects related to the protection of cultural sites of global and national importance should be the result of competitive selection;

- the state should ensure that both the state of cultural properties and the process of realization of conservation projects are subject to expert monitoring;

- permanent training programs for the protection of cultural heritage and cultural tourism should be established in order to build capacity and understanding in this area among local authorities, religious communities, professional guilds and the general public.

Whether the findings, requests and proposals of the experts will be heard and accepted by the state and the political elite, whether or not a slow process of normalization in the field of cultural heritage will begin, is yet to be seen. At this stage, however, it is certain that the visible damage is a fact. Numerous heritage sites have acquired the image of outright kitsch that, instead of making them more comprehensible to people, has turned them into the kind of cheap attractions that, without the million levs investments, one can still find easily at the travelling across the country fairs. 

3 4

Fig. 3. „Mock-ups“ of different historic figures, with whose help tourists can “teleport” back in the past – Kaleto, Mezdra.

Fig. 4. The asphalt driveway to the entrance of the Thracian tomb near Mezek is dotted with contemporary 3D graffiti, representing different episodes from the funeral procession.

The awkward attempts to combine modern artistic practices with cultural heritage sites or to dramatize the natural environment surrounding them, neither make them more interesting nor enhance their cognitive significance, and even less so manage to improve the attitude of local communities to them.

5 6
Fig. 5. A mannequin, symbolizing the mourning wife of the Thracian ruler laid in the tomb, that “scares” the tourists at the entrance of the burial chamber. Despite their protests, in compliance with the terms of the project, it will continue to do so for another 5 years – the village of Mezek.

Fig. 6. The already collapsing camp of medieval knights-crusaders, located at the foot of the Mezek fortress Neutzikon, recreating the historical context of the important military-strategic facility in the past.

On the contrary, the recently completed first stage of this kind of “renovation” of cultural heritage outlined a dangerous trend, implying to the non-professional public the idea that the good heritage is the “rehabilitated” or “renovated” heritage. The polishing of the bronze figurines by Lyubomir Dalchev in Rousse and the “refreshment” of the piece of the Berlin Wall in the park in front of the National Palace of Culture illustrate the deep deformations in thinking about the past and its visible presence in the present.

More generally, this trend fuelled the mass thinking that the past could be remodelled constantly according to the needs of the day, that its surviving material signs only make sense if they carry any financial dividends and for that purpose they can be easily changed, replaced, upgraded and even frankly fabricated.


Fig. 7. The Proto-Bulgarian symbol known as “The sign of the khan”, made of leftover materials, is located right next to the visitor centre of the Kaleto fortress. It is initiated by the manager of the site, who despite his engineering education is a passionate admirer of the Proto-Bulgarian topic. Fig. 8. Episode from the naive story in the newly built initiative of the mayor of Novo Selo, Pazardzhik, the “historical” park “Creation of the world”. 

Unfortunately, such thinking will probably make us suffer before long and then rediscover the old maxim that societies lacking respect for the past are doomed to a confused present and a troubled future.

Translated by Rossitsa Bolgurova


[1] In his wonderful study, The Past Is A Foreign Country, David Lowenthal analysed this problem and sought its intersections with the present.

[2] This unconditional assessment was made by the two artists in the preamble of the School of Art Opening Act (Izkustvo, 1895, vol. 2-3, p.24).

[3] Today, two monuments, a product of this tradition, although from different periods, are part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and are recognized as an indisputable Bulgarian contribution - the Ivanovo rock churches and the Rila Monastery.

[4] Architect Pencho Koichev is one of the leading names in the first post-liberation generation of Bulgarian architects, who analyses the professional developments in the Bulgarian housing and public architecture, opposes the superficial borrowings from West European urban architecture, looks for the characteristics of the Balkan cultural landscape and with his work he is actively involved in the intellectual effort to create a Bulgarian architectural style. (The house, where the King Liberator lived in 1877-1878 in the village of Pordim (Pleven) In: BIAD Magazine, 1902, vol.7-9, 114-116).

[5] Today Revival Plovdiv is included in the indicative list of UNESCO, and the areas that have survived from the Bulgarian Revival period in some present-day Bulgarian cities and smaller settlements have the status of architectural and architectural-historical reserves.

[6] This problem was one of the central themes in the successfully defended doctoral dissertation of Svela Kazalarska, which was recently published as a book – “Muzeyat na komunizma: mezhdu pametta i istoriyata, politikata i pazara [The Museum of Communism between Memory and History, Politics and Market]”, Sofia: Sofia University Press, 2013.

[7] The mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov was destroyed in the summer of 1999 and the artistic action of Ivan Mudov took place in the late autumn of 2012 within the framework of the Contemporary Art Festival in Sofia <http://www.kmeta.bg /hudojnikat-ivan-mudov-izmisli-noviya-mavzoley-1018.html>, (accessed 15.10.2018).

[8] A sad example in this respect is the fate of the ancient Ratiaria near the village of Archar, Vidin, which continues to be plundered to this day and is the object of continuous treasure hunters’ raids.

[9] See, for example, the publication Easy Treasures by Irina Vagalinska and Petya Baharova in Thema magazine, which describes some of the most significant thefts of the museums in Vidin, Vratsa, Veliko Tarnovo and others. <http://www.temanews.com/index.php?p=tema&iid=68&aid=1925>, (accessed 15.10.2018).

[10] The list is so long that it is enough just to recall the recent examples of buildings destroyed literally a few days ago, that were related to the development of the tobacco industry in Plovdiv and Harmanli.

[11] The public discussion held in Plovdiv on 27 March 2015 was the brightest reaction against such attitudes to cultural heritage, but not the only one. In many places in the country, local communities demonstrate their increased public sensitivity and manifest in different ways their civilian positions related to the preservation of immovable cultural properties.

Biographical note

Georgi Valchev is an associated professor in Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy and a Deputy Rector of Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. He is a specialist in the history of Bulgarian culture – 15th 19th centuries and his research interests include also cultural management and cultural heritage. He leads the master’s programme in Management and Socialization of Cultural Heritage as part of the Cultural Studies programme of Sofia University.

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