92. The Pleven Panorama Puts Visitors Inside the Decisive Battle of Bulgarian Liberation

Welcome to Museum Archipelago in Your Inbox, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Museum Archipelago, your audio guide to the rocky landscape of museums, is hosted by me, Ian Elsner.

The Pleven Panorama transports visitors through time, but not space. The huge, hand-painted panorama features the decisive battles of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877–78, fought at this exact spot, which led to Bulgaria’s Liberation. The landscape of Pleven, Bulgaria depicted is exactly what you see outside the building, making it seem like you’re witnessing the battle on an observation point. 

Bogomil Stoev is a historian at the Pleven Panorama, which opened in 1977. The opening was timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s surrender following the battles and the siege of Pleven. The building itself is etched with the story of the siege and the battles, and because the landscape is filled with the remains of the combattants, this was the only structure allowed to be built on the spot. 

In this episode, Stoev describes how the creators of the Pleven Panorama learned from previous panoramas, how the museum contextualizes the history of Bulgaria’s Liberation, and how this museum has become a symbol of the city of Pleven.

“The only successful fight on this day was the fight here for the place of the museum. And this is why we are here.” - Bogomil Stoev

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Gallery Continues ⏭️

As soon as I saw the Pleven Panorama in person, I was reminded of Buzludzha. It was built only a few years after the Pleven Panorama in 1981, and it has a similar feel: an imposing, disk-shaped structure of pressed concrete with a vertical column or two. But the comparison ends there. While Buzludzha was constructed to make the communist party look futuristic, the architecture of the Pleven Panorama itself is etched with the story of the siege and the battles of the past. And while the story of a liberated Bulgaria still resonates, a communist Bulgaria does not.

On episode 54 of this show, we interviewed Brian Muthaliff, a Canadian architect who wants to "reprogram" Buzludzha to mean something other than what it meant before. His proposed redesign subverts the original intention of the building by inviting people to enter through its expansive windows, instead of through an entrance that forces the visitor experience into the grandeur of the building and, by extension, the Bulgarian communist party. Its an episode worth revisiting, and it pairs nicely with the architectural details of the Pleven Panorama.

“If we terraform the mountain top to be what it was, to meet that level, so that people could approach it and enter that space publicly, we create a kind of subversive move to the architecture political agenda of the building, which is this one kind of procession through this space.” - Brian Muthaliff

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Archipelago at the Movies🍿Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

At the climax of the 2001 Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the villain says, “if you gave back every stolen artifact from a museum, you'd be left with an empty building.” Which is a good point.

Atlantis is a movie where the main character works at the Smithsonian. It's a movie that goes deeper than any Disney movie on presenting colonialism and its discontents. But at the end of the day, it's a movie that pits the villain imperialist against the good imperialist, and doesn't seem to realize it's doing it.

Today on Archipelago at the Movies🍿, Atlantis: The Lost Empire with the one and only Rebecca Reibstein.

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