Exploring the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi

Following the Taste of Anatolia Film Festival at the end of September, I went to Georgia as a representative of Balik Arts, with Balik Arts’ Chairperson, to take part in an Erasmus+ training program focusing on Gender Equality. Before meeting with representatives from across EU and EU-partner countries for the program in Bakuriani, I had a spare couple of days in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. Of course, this gave me the opportunity to do some site-seeing and get to know a bit more about Georgian heritage. Up to this point, I had never been to the Caucasus region and knew very little about soviet history, let alone ancient Caucasian history. And so, after making my way around the city to see its hilltop fortress, its many orthodox churches and its markets, it seemed only natural to take the time to explore the country’s National Museum.

It truly is an amazing museum. Although relatively new, its contents are incredibly varied and extremely well-curated. The museum integrates a number of collections that were previously housed elsewhere, including the Museum of Ethnography, the Institute of Paleobiology and the Museum of the Soviet Occupation. It is this latter collection that stood out to me as a must-see, as I was totally uneducated on the topic.

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The Exhibition of the Soviet Occupation of Georgia was both educational and humbling. With a very simple layout and circular route spanning two levels, it detailed the events between 1919 – with the Founding Charter of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Georgia – and the present day.

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Given recent political history, it was interesting to see the effects of both western and Soviet involvement in Georgia, which depicted both the UK and the USA in a relatively positive light. Russia (or rather, the former USSR) is unsurprisingly condemned throughout the exhibition, and with good reason; damning documents calling for the deaths of Georgian civilians, politicians and priests, photographs of those killed during the occupation, and propaganda are displayed on every wall. The photographs had a particularly strong impact. In many cases, a picture of siblings, cousins or a whole family would be presented with simple captions detailing who the people were, how they were related, where and when they were killed, and how old they were when they died. Poignantly, the exhibition opens and closes with a reflection on current relations with Russia. The emotionally charged film that can be seen as you enter the exhibition is contrasted with a map illustrating the bare facts as you leave the exhibition. I was astounded to discover that areas of Georgia remain under occupation and are sites of ongoing conflict… Indeed, the exhibition has been the subject of a great deal of criticism, with accusations that it exhibits “purely nationalist propaganda”. Given the evidence in the form of official documents, letters and photographs, however, it seems difficult to dispute its verisimilitude.

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Inevitably, the remaining exhibitions in the museum could not top the experience I had in the Exhibition of the Soviet Occupation of Georgia, but I thoroughly enjoyed them nonetheless. The paleo-biological display of skulls was unlike any presentation of pre-Palaeolithic history I had seen before, and the examination of Georgia as a “crossroad of cultures” was fascinating. With artefacts dating back to 3000BC, I was left awestruck by the richness of Georgian culture.

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Particular attention was paid to the Goblet of Trialeti, a work of Bronze-Age goldsmithery encrusted with coloured stones and amber. I quickly learnt that Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus regions played an important role in the dissemination of cultural and technological innovations between the Middle East, Near East and Europe.

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I left the Georgian National Museum keen to learn even more about Georgian culture, and thankfully I had the opportunity to do so over the fortnight that followed. I doubt that I will find myself in Georgia again (at least, not any time soon) but I would definitely return to the museum again if I had the opportunity. I have to say, this museum takes tied first place with Madrid’s Archaeology Museum as the best museum I have been to this year. Please, if you happen to be passing through Tbilisi, take the time to visit this wonderful place – you won’t regret it!