April 13, 2012

How Greece’s archaeological sites are weathering the financial crisis

Posted at 8:04 am in Acropolis, Greece Archaeology

There were many derogatory comments made, when Greece first announced that it was going to do more to encourage filming on the Acropolis by private companies (for a fee). At the end of the day though, it makes more sense to explore solutions to solve the problems of finding the funds to maintain the sites, than to sit back doing nothing. Greece’s finances are already stretched to the limit – so anything that can help the country in such a situation should be welcomed.

Press Europ

Cultural heritage
How Europe hawks its monuments
8 February 2012
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Dieter Bartetzko

As Greece pimps its ancient monuments to bring in the tourists, lovers of cultural heritage are up in arms. But the country is only doing openly what the whole of Europe is: looting historic sites to drum up more ready cash.

Disparaging comments went to press practically before the Greek government spokesman had even reached the end of his declaration that the country’s ancient monuments would be used in future for commercial purposes. The Acropolis is thus to become a stage for advertisements and action movies; the Athens’ Agora, birthplace of parliamentary democracy, a playground for fashion shows and 007 stunts; and the Kerameikos, the nearly three-thousand-year-old cemetery, will become the backdrop for commercials featured perfumed sex maniacs touching themselves in their sleep. That’s more or less the future for Greece’s ancient cultural heritage in the looming shadow of the European financial crisis, as cultural pessimists paint it.

One could believe that almost overnight the impending bankruptcy of Greece has turned the country from the cradle of European culture and democracy into a whore ready for anything. But Greece’s negligence towards its ancient world heritage is not a new phenomenon. During the preparations for the Olympic Games in 2004 famous ancient sites such as Marathon were crudely worked up into competition venues and prettified with questionable reproductions of vanished monuments from antiquity. Even the decades-long reconstruction of the Parthenon, which not only wishes to rebuild damaged parts but also missing ones as well, has been grounded as deeply in tourism’s taste for pristine intact sites as in a taste archaeological knowledge.

If one were to look for an event that may have sparked this, then the discovery of the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia in 1977 – in Vergina (Aigai in antiquity) in northern Greece – might spring to mind. It was a sensational discovery: the very tomb of the father of Alexander the Great, with untold wealth in gold and silver treasure, and the ashes of the ruler wrapped in a gold-embroidered purple cloth.
Delphi and the Palace of Knossos – open-air studios

Everyone involved grasped that tourists would queue all night to see the exhibit and got busy straight away preparing a spectacular exhibition. Inquiries to specialists in antique fabrics, however, revealed that unfolding and preserving the purple fabric would take years. One restorer, though, spoke of months – on condition that only one part of the cloth would be saved. The offer was accepted, and the exhibit opened on schedule in Thessaloniki. Record crowds streamed through.

Decades of neglect had prepared the terrain for this opening of the floodgates. The Greek parliament now intends that Delphi and the Palace of Knossos on Crete be rented out as open-air studios, for good money – and not at intervals of four years, like the Olympics, but as often as possible.

Is that really any reason, though, to point an accusing finger at Greece? Was anyone offended in 2010 when Italy’s cultural authorities allowed Pompeii’s ancient theatre to be crammed with new seats and clunky containers for stage technicians and sanitary needs to allow lucrative concerts to be held there again – concerts that had been banned in 1976 after audiences caused immense damage? Does anyone still recall the recent scandal that shocked Rome when stones tumbled down off the Coliseum, which has been trampled across for decades by the tourist trade?
“Dracula’s Wedding – a delicious dinner show with bite”

The laws of the free market have applied to monuments too, for a long time now. All European countries have polished up their historic sites to bring in money. From Vienna’s Museum Quarter, which since 1998 has seen the Baroque court stables converted into the “eighth largest cultural area in the world” thanks to an eccentric new museum, to Germany’s tiny town of Xanten whose ancient Roman core has been enlarged into an open-air museum where waiters in antique costume serve visitors ancient cuisine in reconstructed baths and taverns, ancient sites across Europe are turning into “location factors” that open up new sources of revenue for economically ailing communities.

Germany, formerly resistant to the crisis, is no exception. Take Dresden, which likes to boast of itself as the crown of the Baroque era. There, in 2010, after an endless and futile search for investors, the ravishingly beautiful Kurlander Palace, bombed out in February 1945, was rebuilt. Not as a museum, concert hall or other place of culture, but as an “event location”. One could, so the operators promise on the internet, “rediscover a fairy-tale palace brought back to life,” including its “magic, which is still pervasive.” The main attraction in the former ballroom of the Kurlander Palace is described as “Dracula’s Wedding – a delicious dinner show with bite.”

What is the difference here with the culture-peddlers in Greece? In the shadow of the euro crisis, everywhere greed and lack of money are going hand in hand. In Athens, with their backs to the wall, the Greeks are just doing publicly what others have been practicing under the cover of relative stability. The victims are always the monuments – and lovers of culture too, who in place of historical sites are more and more frequently being offered “event locations”. At a good price, of course.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer


The Acropolis: Greece’s most famous monument weathers the crisis
by Sean McLachlan (RSS feed) on Feb 3rd 2012 at 11:00AM

Visiting Greece and not visiting the Acropolis is unthinkable. Set atop a high rock overlooking Athens, the temples here were built primarily to honor the city’s patron goddess Athena in all her attributes. The buildings here are some of the best examples of Greek architecture and have had a profound effect on the architecture of all the Western world. While I have a preference for medieval sites like Acrocorinth, and I’ve visited the Acropolis before, I couldn’t help but go back.

The last time I was there was 1994, and a lot has changed. There has been a great deal of restoration and the world-class Acropolis Museum has opened up.

Here’s one attraction that the Greek government needs to preserve as it passes through its worst economic crisis since World War Two. People still flock here and it’s a major reason why Greece is an important tourist destination. Tourism accounts for 18 percent of the Greek GDP and tourist numbers went up last year. Several sources told me there were two reasons for this: budget-conscious Europeans are traveling closer to home and people are staying away from North African favorites like Tunisia and Egypt.

Even though sites like the Acropolis generate billions of euros a year in revenue, the Ministry of Culture survives on just 0.7 percent of the national budget, and that budget is shrinking faster than the supply of Greek olives I brought back from this trip. In the past year the ministry has seen its budget slashed by almost a third, with warnings of more cuts to come. Museums are already feeling the pinch and now ministers, archaeologists, and site directors are scrambling to find ways to maintain their their heritage. There are even plans to lease the Acropolis for film backdrops and photo shoots to help raise funds.

This last bit is actually nothing new. Archaeological sites have always been available for rent, but costs were enormous and most projects were rejected out of hand. Now the Acropolis will go for the bargain-basement price of $1,300 a day for a photography session and about $2,000 a day for filming.

Despite Greece’s financial woes, restoration and conservation are continuing. Funds are still coming through from the government and from the European Union. The most visible is the restoration of the pronaos (front inner porch) of the Parthenon shown here in this image by flickr user dorena-wm, who obviously had better luck with the weather than I did. This image was taken last year and now there is considerably more scaffolding obscuring the front. The photo I took last Sunday is in the gallery.

At the Erechtheion, where Poseidon and Athena competed for possession of Athens, the interior of the famous south porch with its caryatid columns is screened off as the ceiling is cleaned with an innovative laser system developed specifically for this project. In ancient times it was believed that Poseidon, the sea god, struck at the ground here with his trident and a salty spring gushed forth. Athena created an olive tree, the first in the world. The Athenians judged that the olive tree was more useful and so dedicated their city to her. The city continued to honor the sea god, though, and the Erechtheion is devoted to his local aspect Erechtheus. Athens owed her power to her great navy, and so it was smart to honor the god who rules the waves, even if he did come in second place in the competition for the city.

No reconstruction was going on when I went, though. I took advantage of Sundays being free to revisit the Acropolis. It was low season and bitterly cold and overcast, but there were still large crowds exploring the ruins. One family from Crete entered at the same time I did and took the same route through the monuments. The father gave a long lecture about the place to his young son and daughter. It was heartening to see how much they enjoyed it. They asked questions, told him some things they’d learned in school, and were obviously having a good time. They took dozens of pictures and I offered to take one of them all together. That got us talking. The father’s English was limited, but his national pride was obvious even through the language barrier. As we talked, his kids went off to take more pictures.

The Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009 to much fanfare and became an instant success. Between between June 2010 and May 2011 more than one million and three hundred thousand Greek and foreign visitors passed through its doors. The museum explains the importance of the site from earliest times through the Classical era and beyond. It’s probably best to see this museum before you see the Acropolis as it will give you a much deeper understanding of that most historic of attractions.

To combat museum fatigue, take a break at the restaurant or café. Prices are remarkably reasonable and floor-to-ceiling windows give a splendid view of the Acropolis and two of its buildings-the Parthenon and the Sanctuary of Athena Nike.

The museum is not free on Sundays but that didn’t stop the crowds coming out in full force. The restaurant, café, and gift shop were all doing a brisk business. Most popular was the third floor, where a reconstruction of the Parthenon sculptures can be seen. As the labels make clear, most of these are plaster casts because between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece, got permission to remove about half of them. As you can see from the display at the Acropolis Museum, he took the best ones. Now they are in the British Museum in London, while several other sculptures were taken by other antiquarians and ended up in other museums.

The Greeks want their sculptures back. The British Museum says they took them with permission of the government that was then in power. Here is the official Greek position and here is the British Museum’s position.

The economic crisis has added a new dimension to the struggle to return the sculptures. While the plaster casts in the Acropolis Museum are very well done, seeing the real thing is always better. Getting them back would be a major coup for a country that has only had bad news for far too long, and it would help bring in much-needed tourism revenue. But with both sides dug in, it looks like the Greeks won’t be getting good news like that anytime soon.

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

Coming up next: The Athens War Museum

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

Tags: , , , , , ,

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away