Greek Museums Between Commercialisation and Modernisation
by Björn Schöpe, translated by Maike Meßmann
Five of Greece’s most important museums are to become more autonomous and operate independently of state funding. A bill of the Greek government to this effect has been hotly debated and led to strikes.
What Will Change for Greek Museums?
Earlier this year, Lina Mendoni, the Greek Minister of Culture and Sports and a PhD-holding archaeologist, initiated a bill that was accepted by parliament on 13 February 2023. Her plans focus on five major museums of the country: the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
So far, and like all other museums, these bodies have been under the control of the Greek Ministry of Culture as public institutions and have been run by archaeologists. In future, they are to be spun off and turned into semi-private corporations that have to report to a government-appointed committee but otherwise enjoy a large degree of autonomy. Therefore, these museums will be increasingly responsible for their own finances and have to raise money themselves. In the media, there is talk of the possibility that the museums might set up branches in other countries where important exhibits could be on display for extended periods of time. By the way, France did something similar when it set up the Louvre Abu Dhabi in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates in 2017, where it shows objects from various French museums.
As the Association of Greek Archaeologists stated on 14 September 2023, the minister also presented plans at a joint meeting according to which not only museum regulations will be altered but also rules regarding excavation licenses and the general administration of cultural assets. The association argues that it is also planned to set up a centralised administration for these areas, which are currently organised in a local, decentralised manner.
What Does the Association of Greek Archaeologists Say about the Planned Change in Law?
The Association of Greek Archaeologists has repeatedly opposed the bill. In February, the organisation called upon museum employees to take part in strikes. So far, museums have been headed by archaeologists. In future, decisions will be made quite independently of the ministerial requirements of the committee, whose members will be appointed by the government – and, as the association fears, by people who do not have any archaeological expertise. On 12 February 2023, the Association of Greek Archaeologists ranted on its Facebook page: “The bill hands over the fate of the most important collections of cultural assets to government-appointed committees, which will decide its fate, including the possibility of exporting them to other countries for an unlimited amount of time … This is a method for commercialising museums, they will be run as semi-private, profit-driven companies to the detriment of the scientific, pedagogical, educational and recreational character of museums and at the expense of equal access of all to the common cultural heritage. … The infrastructure management of museums, their entire possessions – for which the Greek people have paid – as well as the competent staff of the Ministry of Culture and Education that oversees the museums will be handed over to government-appointed boards of directors, so that they can present these future measures and revenues as their own ‘success’.”
The Parthenon Sculptures as Permanent Loans?
With the support of the political opposition led by former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the association is convinced that a particularly sensitive aspect of the bill must be changed. The new law would allow for objects to stay abroad permanently, even as permanent loans. According to Tsipras, this could particularly affect the fate of the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum, which have recently been the subject of secret negotiations.
Minister Mendoni contradicted this as early as in February. She pointed to the Archaeology Law of 2002 that stipulates that the “temporary export of monuments for the purpose of being displayed at museums or similar institutions is granted as long as there are acceptable guarantees regarding a safe transport, the exhibition and the return, and after considering the importance of the exhibition for the promotion of the country’s cultural heritage. The decision indicates the terms of a temporary export, particularly its duration.” Mendoni then quoted article 13 par. 2G of her bill: “The export of objects from museum collections occurs in compliance with article 34 of the Archaeology Law.” The minister directly addressed her opponents: “What about this sounds suspicious? Where does this bill provide for the permanent export of cultural assets?”. Regarding the Parthenon Sculptures, Mendoni once again clearly supported the stance of the Greek government: it is considered a breach of law that the sculptures are in London and the country demands them to be returned.
Currently the bill is being hotly debated and also helps both the government and the opposition to show their will to fight each other. How much responsibility is good for a museum? To what extent can or must museums be run in a financially efficient way? These questions are not only raised in Greece but around the globe. A constructive discussion would be helpful as this is about the cultural heritage of every nation.
What do you think? Do you have further information about Greece’s new bill? Please let us know about your thoughts on the matter.