It’s not easy being the caretaker of Greece’s heritage these days. Greek museums are facing budget cuts, strikes, reduced staff, even loss of visitors due to riots. The National Archaeological Museum had many rooms closed during the peak tourist season last summer due to budget cuts, and strikes are regularly closing all publicly owned museums.
Take the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. It collects the nation’s Medieval heritage, focusing especially on the glory days of Byzantium. When the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves in 395 AD, the West fell apart within a century, but the East, known as Byzantium, survived for another thousand years. Byzantium produced a distinct and beautiful artistic style and preserved many Classical works that then became the inspiration for the Renaissance.
The museum was founded in 1914 in the palace of a French noble. For most of the twentieth century the displays didn’t change much and visitors tended to pass it by for the more famous Classical sights.
“It was a place only for scholars,” said Nikolas Constantios, an archaeologist and museologist who works there and showed me around the recently revamped permanent exhibition.
And what an exhibition! Some four hundred icons are on display. Richly embroidered church vestments stand next to colorfully painted manuscripts, gold coins, and day-to-day objects. It’s all laid out in an open, well-lit fashion that reminded me of the new Ashmolean in Oxford. This modern style replaced the old “cases filled with stuff” museum design and helps combat museum fatigue.
This ten-year revitalization project almost came too late. The money, half of which came from the Ministry of Culture and half from the European Union, was already earmarked when the crisis hit.
“We were safe because we were almost finished,” Constantios said. “If the crisis had happened five years ago we would have had a lot of problems.
The final touches are due to be completed by May and include a public garden, gift shop, and cafe.
While the present looks rosy for this museum, there are some serious challenges ahead. Museum director Anastasia Lazaridou said the Ministry of Culture has cut the museum’s budget by 20 percent. She has had to let some of the staff go, especially short-term contractors whose work is important for their well-known conservation department, which remains the biggest in Greece.
“We will try to find money from the private sector and create a bigger network of collaborations with foreign museums to share expenses,” Lazaridou said.
With the recession, though, the museum has found getting large donations to be more difficult than it used to be. Tickets help–with the renovation visitors numbers are ten times what they were a decade ago–yet many of these visitors get in for free.
When I visited there was a typical crowd for the low season: three other tourists and several school groups. Entrance is free for under-18s. Luckily this situation reverses in the high season. Check out the photo gallery and you’ll see why the Byzantine and Christian Museum is getting on the map.
The Museum of the City of Athens is facing even greater challenges. Housed in the former royal palace of King Otto, the first monarch after independence from the Ottoman Empire, it’s situated close to the municipal government buildings. Several riots have occurred right outside their door and now many tourists avoid the entire neighborhood. Museum director Aglaia Archontidou-Argiri told me visitor numbers dropped 70 percent last year.
Luckily the museum is a private foundation so they are in no danger of closing, yet they’re scrambling to find money for extra programs. Last year they ran a free program teaching Greek culture and history to immigrants. It ran for six months and included students from the Roma, Georgian, Bulgarian, and other communities. Now they have no money to continue, but Archontidou-Argiri remains optimistic they’ll find the money somewhere.
Like with the Byzantine museum, many visitors are school groups, who come to see the displays illustrating the development of their city. While the museum charges them, it lets in kids for free if their families can’t afford the €2 ($2.63) entry fee. With the crisis worsening, this is becoming increasingly common. There is also a popular music and lecture series that attracts many locals, but it is also free.
So far these two museums are doing fairly well. Both have been lucky in their funding, but with the crisis tightening wallets all over Europe, the caretakers of Greek heritage have a tough job ahead.
Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.
Coming up next: Athens day trip: Acrocorinth!