On a gloomy day on a hillside overlooking Tbilisi, we stood on an old wooden porch with George, a man not particularly happy about anything. “This country does everything backwards,” he said, in perfect English. “They have beautiful museums like this, but they do nothing for them, so that criminals and politicians can get rich.”
George works as a guide at the Giorgi Chitaia Open Air Museum of Ethnography, which is comprised of one hundred acres of old and traditional buildings from around Georgia. The buildings are all original - disassembled, brought together and painstakingly re-erected, piece by piece, on an unused plot of land… and then, sadly, left to sit.
Of the seventy buildings in the museum, we counted only four that were open that afternoon. The reason, George explained, is that no one is willing to work there. “It’s crazy,” he said. “They pay me two hundred lari a month (about $120), and they pay people eight hundred lari to pick up garbage. I speak four languages. This is why all the brains have left Georgia.”
“I don’t mind, because I’m an artist” he said, as we were shown around the cottage he’s charged with keeping up and showing to rare visitors. Old shepherd implements and cooking pots mingled with his canvases in the small space, a half dozen cats meowled and ate from a bowl set on a bench.
After a long climb up to the ethnographic museum, we were greeted by a group of four policemen, who were smoking as they stood around the entrance. They looked unhappy about our arrival, and surprised. Their stances and scowls were heavy with boredom. A large, well-dressed man stood with them - some type of government employee, most likely, with a position in museums. Groupings of this type are extremely common in Tbilisi, where so much of the population is employed by the police or by some agency.
The mood was even darker inside the gates, and the air was very still. We counted only five other visitors. The buildings were padlocked and blank-windowed. The exteriors were somewhat interesting, but there were hardly any signs and almost no information given. Walking through these relics, the extent of disuse and decay was disheartening.
It’s especially sad because the Georgian Museum of Ethnography has quite a remarkable collection. We’ve visited a number of “skansens” on our trip, and few have been this extensive or have had buildings this interesting.
One structure in particular fascinated us. Among the few staffed buildings, this “darbazi” style house was kept beautifully, with immaculate furnishings and a hard, much-swept earthen floor. The precisely laid beams in the conical chimney were mesmerizing, and we marveled at the ancient craftsmanship.Old artifacts and pieces of art lay scattered in the brushy woods – millwheels, earthen wine containers, gravestones, milemarkers. A roofless stone temple lay with leaves covering its floor, broken pillars jutting up like snapped tree trunks.
We were amazed by this collection of stones, laid out in a row. We took them to be tomb markers, but it was difficult to tell – there was no placard, and they may have been religious symbols. In addition to this horse, there were a few rams and a smattering of penis shaped things. Also, flatter stones with hand-print shaped hollows carved into them and lichen growing up the sides.
Quite high up the hillside, we came across a semi-destroyed, soviet era building on a little plateau strewn with shards of glass. It was unlikely part of the collection, but seemed fitting nonetheless, a somber reminder about rubble and the effects of time.
There was a funny little grouping of old buses on the grounds, which were also probably not officially part of the museum, but were interesting anyway. It's possible that, at one time, someone had thought it would be interesting to preserve them. No one took much interest in them afterwards, apparently.
On our way out, we passed the policemen again and wished them a happy new year. As we trudged down the long road back to Tbilisi, a shiny, green Mercedes pulled up alongside us and honked. The tall government man was inside, smiling and waving for us to get in, which we did. He spoke no English, but said, pointing to the stereo, "Bob Marley," which was correct. He turned the volume up and smiled at me, and then said nothing more the rest of the ride down the hill.