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The significance of declining visitor numbers at the New Acropolis Museum

The author of this piece has, I suspect, taken a deliberately provocative approach to the subject matter. After all, magazine editors like nothing more than articles that stir up a heated discussion about a subject.

It does raise some interesting points though. Since its opening year, the visitor numbers at the New Acropolis Museum have declined. I believe that this is down to a variety of factors. Firstly, any new facility (whatever it is – shops, museums, hotels) tends to get an initial rush of interest – because of the fact that it is new. People rush to it, wanting to see it – particularly if the construction process has been going on for some time (works relating to the building of a new museum at the Acropolis Museum site had been underway since before 2000) and if it has made the headlines (which the New Acropolis Museum managed to on many occasions, regularly attracting controversy [1]). After this initial honeymoon period, visitor numbers are likely to decline. Once people have visited something once, they are not so desperate to visit it again (afterall, there are many more things to see in the world, that they have not yet seen). Museums around the world regularly try to attract people back with temporary exhibitions, programmes of lectures & re-organisation of their exhibits, putting some in storage and others on display.

Secondly, there was an increase in admission charges – the museum initial made a very minimal charge [2], which later increased – this was always a planed decision.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly from the perspective of people in Greece today, is the financial crisis. The museum could not have opened at a worse time, as during the period immediately afterwards, the financial storm clouds that had been brewing on the horizon unleashed wave after wave of bad news for Greece. Budget cutbacks meant that there were reductions in the amount that could be spent on publicity for the new museum. People saw pictures of rioters ripping apart the cobbles of Syntagma & tear gas grenades being thrown by police in Exarchia and may well have re-considered their trips to Greece that they were planning. Still more may have cancelled the days in Athens at the start or end of their trip & instead just passed through the airport, taking a more direct route to the peace of the islands. Strikes have plagued many of Greece’s museums and archaeological sites [3] & featured regularly on the news around the world. Although the New Acropolis Museum has been largely unaffected, most people who see pictures of picketed gates to museums are not aware of this. The financial crisis has also had in impact on the economies of many other countries outside of Greece. Across Europe & further afield, unemployment has risen, along with prices of food and petrol, while wages have stagnated. For many people with less money available, holidays abroad, particularly short weekend breaks are something that they have cut back on. Speaking from the point of view of someone in the UK, the current GBP:EUR exchange rates make Greece a far more expensive place to visit than it ever used to be, No longer does Athens feel like a cheap destination, but instead has prices comparable to London.

However, notwithstanding all the above provisos, the New Acropolis Museum has seen a decline in its visitor numbers over time & they are lower than some predictions hoped they would be.

Perhaps more importantly (maybe I should have mentioned this at the start of the article), I have always found arguments [4] (from the British Museum) relating to visitor numbers to be a red-herring, distracting people from the actual discussion in hand. If maximising the number of people that see an artefact is of primary importance, then perhaps everything should be shipped to Beijing or Mumbai? But then again, should visitor number be used to over-ride compelling moral arguments for the return of the sculptures?

At past press conferences at the New Acropolis Museum, Professor Pandermalis has made no secret of the decline in numbers. He has in fact emphasised them with the hope that at least some of the journalists present might write articles in a way that inspires people to come & visit the museum. He has also outlined strategies for how they hope to increase the numbers over time.

Museums Journal [5]

Greek Drama at the New Acropolis Museum
James Beresford
Issue 113/09, P17, 01.09.13

Opening to international fanfare in June 2009, the €129m New Acropolis Museum has become the embodiment of the Greek desire to see Elgin’s marble trophies returned to Athens. However, the paying public has been less-than-impressed with the museum, which has failed to attract the visitor numbers that were predicted.

In 2006 journalist Tom Flynn noted: “The old Acropolis Museum currently attracts around 1.5 million people each year. The Greeks hope their New Acropolis Museum will at least double that figure.”

In an interview in Time a year later, Dimitrios Pandermalis, the current president of the museum, anticipated in excess of two million visitors passing annually through the doors.

The museum has, however, failed to meet such expectations. In the four years since opening, 5,440,343 people have visited the museum – considerably fewer than the eight million its president envisioned.

Opening in the teeth of the economic recession, the low visitor numbers are partly understandable. Nonetheless, the rapid decline in attendance over the course of the New Acropolis Museum’s short lifetime is worrying.

During its first year of operation (June 2009/May 2010), visitor numbers were a creditable 1,950,539, falling just shy of the two million anticipated by Pandermalis.

Since then, however, there has been a steep fall-off in attendance and the latest figure of 1,036,059 (June 2012/May 2013) reveals a drop of almost 50% in only three years. Equally unsettling is the plummeting position of the New Acropolis Museum compared with other international museums.

Attendance figures compiled by the Art Newspaper placed the New Acropolis Museum in 25th position in 2010 (the first full calendar year it was open to the public). The museum dropped 13 places in 2011, and an additional 21 places in 2012, finishing last year in 59th position – a fall of 34 places in just two years.

There are some grounds for optimism; the declining trend in visitor numbers should be reversed in 2013 as Greece benefits from the political upheavals affecting rival tourist destinations such as Egypt and Turkey. However, a reliance on the instability of neighbouring countries scarcely guarantees a bright future for the museum.

Restitutionists petitioning for the return of Elgin’s keepsakes have greeted the disappointing attendance figures at the New Acropolis Museum with deafening silence – hardly surprising since drawing attention to the lacklustre performance can only damage attempts to repatriate the marbles.

However, it is hoped that the campaign groups meeting in Sydney this November will grasp the nettle and take time away from their usual diatribes against the British Museum to ask some searching questions of Greek culture officials in attendance.

James Beresford is a writer based in Athens. He is currently writing a book on the effects of the economic crisis on the Greek heritage sector