The Athens War Museum

Athens War Museum
This is a Heckler & Koch MP5 9mm submachine gun with gold plated parts. It was given by the Defense Minister of Kuwait to former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, probably as a thank you for his nation’s help in liberating Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. It’s one of a case of Papandreou’s personal weapons on display at the Athens War Museum.

Greece has a long and proud military history stretching all the way back to when hoplites met Persian invaders and chariots were the latest thing in military technology. This museum starts right at the beginning and goes up to the modern day. While the section on Classical Greece is large and well detailed, I’d seen this sort of thing in other museums. The other periods of history were much more interesting to me.

One hall is devoted to the armies of the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately all the weapons here are reproductions, but there are some detailed dioramas of fortresses and troop formations that show just how advanced the Byzantines were. They even had “Greek Fire”, an early form of napalm that played havoc with the sailing ships of the time.

The largest amount of space is devoted to Greece’s two wars of liberation-first against the Ottoman Empire starting in 1821 and again against Nazi Germany during World War Two. This is when the Greeks really showed their fighting spirit-outnumbered, outgunned, and under occupation, they nevertheless fought against the superpowers of their day and eventually won.

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The images from World War Two are especially sobering. The Nazis systematically plundered Greece and many people starved to death. The partisans kept fighting, though, using captured weapons or those smuggled in by the Allies. They even devised homemade ones, including a gun hidden in a cane. Elderly Greeks say the current economic meltdown will never make Greece suffer as much as the Nazis did, but they do worry about the younger generation that has never had to face serious hardship.

There’s also a section on the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, complete with uniforms, equipment, and walls full of detailed paintings and photographs. Greece managed to double its size in these conflicts and reduce the threat of the Ottoman Empire ever retaking the region. It was during this time that the Greek Air Force got started. Hanging outside the museum is a reproduction of the Daedalus, one of those early planes that looks more like an oversized kite. As flimsy as it is, it flew into history when it went on a reconnaissance mission on December 5, 1912, the first day of the Balkan Wars. The Ottomans sent up a plane the same day. These two missions are tied for second place in the history of military aviation. The year before, an Italian pilot dropped bombs over the Ottoman province of Tripolitania, modern Libya.

The basement is full of curiosities such as African weapons, and outside are several tanks and artillery pieces. The ground floor has a variety of weapons from all over Europe.

My only two criticisms are that the lighting on the glass cases made it difficult to take photos without them being obscured by reflections, and that sometimes the labels were too vague, with some cases being marked with signs such as “swords, 19th century.” Still, it’s a must-see for any fan of military history or anyone who wants to know just what the Greeks had to endure to earn their independence.

As I got my jacket from the coat check, I browsed through the books they had for sale at the counter. I pointed to a title on the Balkan Wars.

“How much is this?”

“Sorry,” the man behind the counter said, shaking his head. “They’re only for sale to veterans.”

“Why’s that?”

“We’re almost out and we don’t have any money to print more.”

I must have looked disappointed because he rummaged around in his desk and brought out a pamphlet about the museum.

“Here,” he said, handing it to me. “You can have this for free.”

“Oh, thanks.”

The soldier manning the ticket counter hurried over and handed me a DVD.

“This is a documentary about Greece’s struggle against the Nazis. You can have this too, and take this map,” he said, handing me a reproduction of a 17th century map of Greece that I’m going to hang on my son’s wall.

“Glad you liked the museum,” the soldier said.

The Greek economy may be in a shambles, but Greek hospitality and patriotism are doing just fine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Sparta!

Greek museums face the economic crisis

Greek museumsIt’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.

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“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!