The only way to take a picture in a Bulgarian museum is to do it furtively - or pay for it. Welcome to the photography scam
"If you want to take photos, you will have to pay another 10 leva." What you hear at the ticket desk of the National Museum of History (NMH) in Sofia may cool the enthusiasm with which you headed for the former residence of Communist leader Todor Zhivkov in Boyana, wanting to learn more about Bulgarian history. The shock will be even greater if you compare this with the situation in most British museums, where not only entry but the photography of exhibits is free - and encouraged.
The price charged by the NMH to allow you to use your video camera (80 leva!) will certainly convince you that you are to enter a museum which houses artefacts of historic and artistic value higher than that of the Parthenon marbles, the canvases of Velazquez and Leonardo da Vinci, and at least four Faberge eggs.
The Thracian gold treasures, prehistoric pottery, exquisite mediaeval jewellery and illuminated manuscripts are interesting and you will gladly want to take pictures to send to friends and relatives. And because you have had no problems whatsoever photographing the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, for example, you will probably consider it a matter of self-respect not to pay the additional 10 leva. Or buy any of the photo albums or DVD films in the souvenir shop."Why are you asking petty questions like this when there are major issues like treasure hunting and the illegal export of antiquities?" museum director Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov answered when asked by why they levy a photography charge in the NMH. Yet, he gave a useful tip. "You can use your mobile phone and take pictures for free, nobody will stop you." But why these high extra charges? "Because of the museum's and author's rights," said Dimitrov, whose ideas about the uniqueness of the Bulgarians as a nation are getting increasingly popular among the Bulgarians themselves. The NMH houses over 650,000 objects of archaeological, ethnographic, historical or artistic value. About 10 percent of them are among the permanent exhibits but the Thracian gold treasures are more often abroad as a "humanitarian aid for needy museums in the West," as Dimitrov himself put it. The latest such destitute institution was the Musee Jaquemart-Andre in Paris. After their three-month stay in the French capital, which the NMH termed "triumphant", at the end of February six of the treasures, including the ones from Panagyurishte, Rogozen and Borovo, went to Basel with their next display already planned in Japan.
Тhe Tetraevangelia of Bulgarian King Ivan Alexander of 1355, known as the London Gospel, is on display in the British Museum. There, you can take pictures of the original. There is a copy in Sofia, but you are not allowed to take pictures of it
The British Museum, on the other hand, has over 13 million exhibits from all continents and stages of development of human civilisation. All of them, including the original of Bulgarian King Ivan Alexander's gospel of 1355, are free to photograph. To take a picture of a copy of the manuscript in the Mediaeval Hall of the NMH, however, you have to pay!
Admission and photography in national museums in Britain has been free at least since 2001, when the Blair government decided to support them with National Lottery proceeds. Since then visits have soared: the Waterway Trust, for example, has recorded a 72 percent increase of visitors to its museums at Gloucester Docks, Ellesmere Port and Stoke Bruerne.
Each institution autonomously decides the conditions for allowing the photography of all or part of its museum exhibits and this largely depends on its current policy. A ticket for the Hermitage, for example, costs $17.95 and entitles you to take pictures or videos everywhere except the places specifically prohibited. In the Museum of Modern Art, the Met and the Brooklyn Museum in New York you can film the permanent collections as long as you do not use a flash, thus ensuring the comfort of other visitors. Taking pictures in the rooms with paintings in the Louvre was recently restricted, but it is allowed in the rest of the museum. The museum in Rethymnon, Crete has the most pedantic approach in this respect: there is a sign by each exhibit showing whether its photography is allowed or not. Photos are, however, forbidden in Cairo's Egyptian Museum and the entry fee is 20 Egyptian pounds (about $3.50).
The only large Bulgarian museum where photography is completely forbidden for ordinary tourists is the National Archaeological Museum (NAM) in Sofia, the place which houses one of the country's greatest treasures, found near Valchitran. The ban came as a result of the break-in at the museum in 2002, when valuable coins and other archaeological finds were stolen. Museum director Professor Vasil Nikolov stated that after this incident the Academic Council of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, whose branch the NAM is, would probably never again have a liberal policy regarding photography. Professor Nikolov is even against publishing the pictures of the more valuable exhibits on the museum web page, because they may attract burglars. Journalists can, however, take pictures of the press conferences in the museum or of exhibits of their choice. The only condition is to obtain the director's permission in advance - he will seldom refuse, but it does take time and persistence.
National Museum of History direcotr Bozhidar Dimitrov is known for his ideas about the uniqueness of Bulgarian civilisation, which are becoming increasingly popular amongst the Bulgarians themselves
Coins and antiquities were also stolen from the Archaeological Museum of Veliko Tarnovo in 2006. Nevertheless, it has a more liberal policy: you will be allowed to take pictures for three leva. But if you want to use a video camera, you will need special permission from the museum director and, most probably, to pay too.
Admission fees and photography rules in state museums in Bulgaria are determined by their directors. But where do the proceeds go? "The revenue received from entry charges and additional activities by national museums goes to the national budget and that of municipal museums to the respective municipal budget," says Rumyan Ganchev, Head of the Museums, Galleries and Art Department of the Ministry of Culture. There are no hard-and-fast rules about how the money is spent, though. The income of the Archaeological Museum from the sale of postcards, photographs, pictures and other reproductions of antiques items, for example, is collected in a special fund used to finance the organisation of its temporary exhibitions and can't be used for other purposes. Unlike Britain, free admission in Bulgaria seems unlikely any time soon. Over 90 museums in the country receive subsidies from the government. They are usually inadequate to cover their running costs and there are also other large and pressing expenses. Ganchev himself admits that the buildings and their interiors are in poor condition. There is still much room for improvement regarding the exhibitions, and marketing and publicity are virtually unknown. While there is no solution to these problems and no alternative means of funding, such as the art lottery which has not started yet despite the law passed for it in 2005, Bulgarian museums will continue supplementing their meagre budgets with the proceeds from "camera charges".
Until 2005, there were two types of fees - one for Bulgarians and one for foreigners. Foreign visitors had to pay several times more
Often, this "photo terrorism" which the governing bodies of Bulgarian museums subject innocent visitors to happens in places where, theoretically, taking pictures should be encouraged because it will boost tourism. Usually, the bans which private security companies impose with an iron hand have nothing to do with the "no photography" rules in the West, which normally are related to private property and privacy rights. For example, an increasing number of Bulgarian monasteries, which are a major tourist attraction in Bulgaria, ban photography.
The reason is unrelated to any possible disruption of religious services - it is all about money. Two of the largest and most beautiful monasteries are particularly unpleasant in this respect. Even journalists, our photographers and reporters included, have had problems finding the abbot to get permission to take pictures in the yard of the Bachkovo Monastery and the new man in charge of the Rila Monastery has even banned walking on the magnificent wooden balconies of the monastery, which used to be one of the most enjoyable experiences there. We are yet to see whether Bulgarian museum directors and abbots will realise that it is in the interest of the institutions they head to treat their visitors well. But it is clear that at least for the time being different people are treated in different ways in the hotels, restaurants or at the ski lifts of the newest EU member state. And, yes, in the hypothetically aesthetic environment of museums and monasteries too.
Entrance to the British Museum is free. So is photography