Thursday, October 30, 2008

Singular Antiquity 7: Mouliou on Greek Museums (1948-present)

Greek archaeological museums get a very bad press as bureaucratic and badly administered institutions. Marlene Mouliou's essay, "Museum Presentations of the Classical Past in Post-War Greece: A Critical Analysis" offers a historical context for the modern institution. The essay appears in Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos (Athens, 2008), pp. 83-109.

The Greek museum as we know it is physically a post-war phenomenon, since the archaeological service had to dismantle all exhibitions at the wake of World War II. Whatever was on display was buried into protected basements. Museums were reinstalled after 1948, offering an opportunity for rebirth. Mouliou divides the history of Greece's postwar museum history into three phases and examines the political forces that shaped them. At the end of the essay one is left with great admiration for the institution. Museums in the West hardly needed to negotiate among so many objectives and deflate so many pressures.

Phase 1 (1948-1976) is characterized as the period of regeneration. The classical past was here presented as linear artistic evolution. The reopening of the National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museums signaled a national resurrection after Fascism. Christos Karouzos, Semni Papaspyridi-Karouzou and Yannis Miliadis used a concept most prominent in art historical practices of its time, the linear evolution of monuments and the desire to illustrate the aesthetic essence of each cultural period. Their mentors were scholars like John Beazley (with whom Paspyridi-Karouzou studied). This is no different than the way art history surveys are still taught in the U.S. Speaking from my own experience, much of what I do on a daily pedagogical basis is navigate neophytes through Gardner's Art through the Ages or Janson's History of Art. The Greek museum of the 50s, 60s and 70s functioned as a place to cultivate connoisseurship and to teach the inherent spirit of artifacts and soul of a period. Mouliou beautiful articulates the social forces that brought about Greece's national idiosyncrasies, from the sudden emergence of a tourist industry to the growing intervention by foreign powers. There are only two exceptions to the predominant
connoisseurship. One comes from the Athenian Agora, where the American School of Classical Studies at Athens introduced thematic (rather than evolutionary) organization. The Agora museum, a controversial restoration of the Stoa of Attalos, moreover, introduced a particularly American obsession with texts, growing out of the education structure of American classics departments. In the Agora, antiquities were constantly supplementing or illustrating textual literature and history. The second exception came in 1975 at the Museum of Volos. Here, George Hourmouziadis introduced concepts of New Archaeology and focused on the social role of archaeology.

Phase 2 (1977-1996) can be characterized by an unsustainable expansion, which was a double edged sword. In 1977, Presidential Decree 941 gave archaeology today's administrative structure, the organization into Prehistoric, Classical and Byzantine Ephorias. New personnel opportunities, a growing number of rescue excavations and a booming number of museums dramatically affected the practice of archaeology and its social role within the welfare state. The resulting administration, however, was inflexible. It compounded earlier dysfunctions into a permanent status quo and it greatly stifled intellectual and interpretive work. Museums grew into places for storing rescue finds. The scholar got bogged down and creative solutions were thwarted. And come to think of it, the Ephorias' double responsibilities of rescue excavations and museum administration do not make good partners.

Within this context grew a phenomenon called the "Vergina Syndrome." Andronikos' exhibitions of Macedonian finds from Vergina were quickly politicized. The 1978 show "Treasures of Ancient Macedonia" became an international block buster, traveling to the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe. Dealing so closely with issues of modern states (the Macedonian Question), Andronikos' model for success was dangerously subservient to the service of national ideology. New exhibition possibilities and the renaissance of the Museum of Thessaloniki had positive effects. But some critics argued that Vergina simply encouraged a senseless treasure hunt. Traveling exhibitions, like the 1977 Aegean Art show, caused a different kind of political agitation. Greek citizens began to protest the expatriation of their works. Demonstrations in Crete against the Aegean Art show called for a "battle of the amphoras" or the "kidnapping of gods." Grass roots movements and disaffection with U.S. foreign policy took an interesting form of archaeological activism.

Phase 3, (1997-present) is described as the period of opportunities. Greece's entrance into the European Community in 1981, the founding of the Hellenic National Committee of ICOM in 1983, the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2004 and affiliations with a dynamic diaspora placed the Greek museum into a new globalized setting in which old rules (national rebirth, political persecution, xenophobia) ceased to be either viable or productive. Outwardly focused discursive considerations, exo- and macro- systems began to fall into place. Mouliou gives a wonderful overview of contemporary museum trends, discussing thematic exhibits like "Child in Antiquity" and "Mind and Body." Clearly, any coherent museological theory is lacking in modern Greek practices, but there is a shared anxiety that the museum is losing its audience. The old-school "hoarding up treasures," nationalist ancestor-worship and eclectic connoisseurship are strategies with little utility in a globalized world. Hourmouziadis, again in 1999, reiterated the need for educational programs. Given the general public's love for archaeology, the absence of "public archaeology" in Greece is striking.

Marlen Mouriou's essay should be mandatory reading for any scholar coming into contact with the Greek museum system. Understanding the historical roots of individual initiatives certainly justifies the Greek idiosyncrasies; one is amazed, in fact, how flexible Greek museums have been to changing realities. At the end of the essay, the reader senses Mouriou's deep concern for the future along with a slight hint of optimism. The bureaucratization of the Greek state and the establishment of the Ephoria system in 1977 seems to be more of a hindrance. Creative solutions are needed now more than ever. Greek museums have a lot of potential and Mouriou's critical reading shows the presence of great talent even within the sclerotic framework.

For additional reviews from Singular Antiquity, see here.

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Kostis Kourelis

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