Situated on a hillside overlooking the outskirts of the capital city of Tbilisi is the Open Air Museum of Ethnography. Open Air is a living history museum that recreates the cultural landscape of Georgia through installations of houses transported from regional centers. My three-minute digital story—“Observe First”—concerns the lessons I learned at a particular museum event during the early stages of my dissertation fieldwork. It was the reception for the reopening of the Abkhazian House. In outward appearance, for the untrained Westerner who is strolling along the shrub-lined path of this outdoor museum, the Abkhazian House will appear only subtly different from other houses nearby. Indeed, it is a longstanding member of the museum’s offerings, yet its reopening resonated with powerful and complex meanings. It was nearly two decades since an ethnic conflict with Abkhazian separatists, leaving the region called Abkhazia off reaches to Georgians. Under the veneer of celebration then was an enduring discontent felt by Georgians. This digital story is about that ambiguity and my failure to correctly perceive it at the time.
Georgia for the better part of the new millennium’s first decade was in the throes of intense national renewal framed by dramatic reforms. One of these reforms was aimed at redefining the nation as multiethnic and I expected the museum system to be a participant in this project. Discoveries such as the skull of one of the oldest specimens of early Man outside of Africa—Homo erectus georgicus—had already put the Georgian National Museum (GNM) on the map. The picturesque Open Air Museum, meanwhile, is a literal breath of fresh air at the foothills of the country’s capital, a break for visiting tourists or research scholars who want to visit the Georgian countryside without leaving the capital.
As an institution, the Georgian National Museum is traceable to the Czarist period, to the Museum of the Caucasian Department of the Russian Royal Geographical Society. Later under the Soviets, not only did the name change, but the museum’s scope became specifically focused on Georgia, in conformity with Soviet-wide initiatives of korenizatsyia. The outward mission of korenizatsiya was to empower ethnic communities based on a logic that if the parts are strong, the whole will be stronger. In hindsight though, the Soviet stratagem was also complicit in a divide and conquer form of rule. It manufactured thick national differences not only between republics, but also within them. I believe this history of distilling and manufacturing ethnic difference frames the set of events that sparked the 1992–93 ethnic conflict with Abkhazia and thus is part of the back-story of why the Abkhazian House celebration was ambiguous 16 years later.
For me, the Open Air Museum has always been special as it seeks to capture the breadth of Georgian heritage not only its singularity. Traditionally Georgia comprises not only several regions, some with their own languages, but aforementioned autonomous and semi-autonomous areas such as Abkhazia. In cosmopolitan Tbilisi alone, several centuries-old ethnic communities existed and still exist. For these reasons and others, prior to my arrival in 2009, President and pro-reformist leader Mikheil Saakashvili had begun to refer to Georgia no longer as a homogenous nation-state but as multiethnic Georgia, using the key phrase dzala ertobashi or strength through unity. I wondered if the initiative would be visible through the lens of cultural institutions like the museum. Would I be able to see whether Saakashvili’s rearticulation of Georgianness was merely a stratagem to satisfy Western and international observers, or whether “Multiethnic Georgia” was genuinely how residents perceived themselves?
Ultimately my experience at the Abkhazian House registered the former view. I realized how powerfully personal and fraught with tragedy the defining of nation can be. In the digital story I don’t articulate these findings directly but instead explain through a series of sights and sensations leading to the unspoken realization. The story begins with my initial excitement being told the news of the reopening. Not only do I expect that the house will have something to do with Abkhazian heritage, I assume the reopening signals a rapprochement of sorts between Georgians and Abkhazians. The rest of the story takes place at the reception itself, documenting my eagerness to see and hear certain signs.
The Abkhazian House experience helped me to see the disconnect that exists between notions of multiculturalism in Western countries and notions that exist in places like Georgia, where diversity has existed for centuries. Georgians have been dealing with ethnically different others for millennia and have developed their own traditional practices for assuaging these relations; they are not about to switch easily to a formula defined by foreigners and enforced from above. This key event helped me to realize this and set the pace and tenor of my research for the remainder of my time in the field.
Hülya Sakarya is an adjunct instructor at Mercy College. She conducted her dissertation fieldwork in Georgia in 2009 during a period of rapid social, political and economic reforms under the Saakashvili administration. Her work focused on multicultural initiatives and she received her PhD from Temple University in 2012.