National narratives as part of ancestral memory of a given historical moment

Nov 13, 2020

Good governance

An interview to Svetla Petrova, chief curator in the Archaeological Museum in Sandanski, (Bulgaria), interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator.

Svetla Petrova is a PhD in archaeology and chief curator in the Archaeological Museum in Sandanski, Bulgaria. Her principal subjects are archaeology and world history, a specialist in ancient, late antique and early Byzantine Archaeology. She works on the organisation of exhibitions, scientific conferences, protection of cultural heritage, archaeological studies, excavations, as well as museum funds. Mrs Petrova used to be a member of the department of classical archaeology and a deputy head of the National Archaeological Institute and Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, as well as inspector at the National Institute of Cultural Monuments. She has a competence in developmentand realisation of projects related to the ancient, late ancient and early Byzantine architecture and urban planning, early Christian Archaeology and basilica construction. She maintains excellent cooperation with Greece as well as with North Macedonia. Her professionalism and positive experience in cross-border cooperation makes her a very relevant speaker on the questions related to  ‘shared or contested heritage’.

What is heritage, how does it work and what does it mean for people with different backgrounds?

Svetla: Inheritance is what our ancestors left us with – material goods, historical memory, archaeological artefacts. When we speak about historical and archaeological heritage, it represents the ancestral memory of the people from a particular country or territory, shown through the artefacts. In any case, a person’s origin should not be relevant to the concept of heritage – it should be defined as national/ancestral memory.

Do you think that heritage institutions should be more inclusive or exclusive? Is it important to be clear about whose stories are being presented, by whom and for which purposes? Some practices point towards an inclusive approach through the restructuration of institutions and the fostering of supportive leadership.  What do you think about this approach?

Svetla: Archaeological and historical past are above all cultural, therefore the institutions dealing with Bulgarian national heritage – museums and institutes, ministry of culture; universities and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences act also as foundations. They are all committed to preserving the national cultural heritage. When the institutions operate efficiently, there is no need for them to be restructured, and it shouldn’t be a question of leadership therein, but only consideration of historical and archaeological data and facts.

Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from North Macedonia and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?

Svetla: Of course, I have cross-border cooperation with colleagues from North Macedonia in the field of archaeology – the ancient and early Byzantine eras. I have no problems and difficulties with the communication and realisation of our projects.

We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?

Svetla: There may be some discrepancies. Stories are intertwined in the Balkans, but I don’t think that should disturb us. Historical facts are clear and should not be interpreted for one cause or another.

“A person’s origin should not be relevant to the concept of heritage – it should be defined as national/ancestral memory”

Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation? 

Svetla: So far, I have no case of controversial results in my scientific field – Roman and early Christian/early Byzantine archaeology.

In a context of uncertainties and dystopias, what is the role of cultural heritage?

Svetla: I don’t see any uncertainty or discrepancy from their usual places in the area where I work.

One of the challenges for researchers and practitioners in the field of cultural heritage is to develop more inclusive approaches to share heritage in order to transgress social and national boundaries. Any ideas on how this approach could be implemented into your particular field of interest?

Svetla: Since my field of work pertains to an era when modern social and national borders did not exist, I have no problems in the study of the historical and archaeological heritage of that period. I think historical facts should be interpreted correctly. For archaeology, no such problem exists.

What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree with this citation and why?

Svetla: I disagree, because national narratives are part of the ancestral memory of a given historical moment and there is no way, in my opinion, that they could be one-sided.

When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?

Svetla: The past always remains the past and cannot be interpreted as the present. In any event, as part of the cultural national heritage, it should have some impact. The past is marked by facts that, in our context, such as scientific activity, should not be distorted or adjusted to a particular situation. Cultural heritage, as a generic memory of a people, also determines its history. In the field of Roman and early Byzantine history and archaeology, I do not believe that adjustment or distortion of cultural heritage and identity can be applied, so far at least, it has never been the case.

Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience read the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?

Svetla: Words always influence if, of course, they are used accurately, clearly and correctly. Therefore, inordinate speaking in the field of cultural heritage, respectively, ancestral memory can lead to distortion and gross historical errors.


The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers.  The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.