By Margarita Pournara
A recent article in Time magazine titled “Can Privatization Save the Treasures of Ancient Greece?” didn't not just sparked controversy; it brought to the surface two entirely different approaches to the issue of how the country's cultural heritage is managed.
Should the private sector, for example, be allowed to become involved in the sector of archaeology and antiquities – areas that have always been under the jurisdiction of the Greek state? Under what terms can we discuss the generation of revenues from cultural heritage sites beyond those collected from admission fees?
The whole issue erupted last fall when distinguished American professor and archaeologist Stephen G. Miller, director of excavations at Ancient Nemea, sent an open letter to the Greek authorities and media asking the Greek state to cancel the planned dismissal of part of its security team, something which, he said, would force the closure of the site.
Miller submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Culture outlining how the state could generate revenues from the country's more neglected archaeological sites and ensure that they can operate properly.
In an interview with Kathimerini in October following the publication of the open letter, Miller gave several examples of how his idea could work.
“You could have a private company come in and take over the purchase of the property, the maintenance of the ruins, the guarding of the grounds, the construction of the museum, the storage of finds, the conservation of artifacts, the building of a hotel, restaurant, gift shop and so forth,” Miller said.
“I would start with ‘nonexistent’ sites,” Miller told Kathimerini at the time. “The valley next to Nemea, for example, is the site of an ancient city called Phlius – a medium-sized city, not of huge importance. There were excavations there in the 1920s and briefly in the 60s and 70s. This site has a theater. The material unearthed from Phlius is in the Nemea museum.
The ancient ruins are completely open to the public. Anyone can go there and do whatever they want. The American School purchased it back in the 20s, but it's now just been left to the local people. Their animals are all over it. Farmers are constantly digging up antiquities.”
What Miller had suggested was for private companies to be allowed to draw up business plans for the utilization of archaeological sites with the oversight of the state.
The American archaeologist is quoted in Time magazine's aforementioned article as saying of the Greek Culture Ministry, “it does conservation work extremely well, they are very good at setting up exhibitions.” But, he added, “they are lousy businessmen.”
The comments Miller made to Time evoked an instant reaction from the Greek archaeological community, with numerous statements slamming his suggestions, though not necessarily taking into account his full proposal.
On January 20, the Association of Greek Archaeologists issued a statement saying that “archaeological sites and the country’s monuments belong to the whole of society. The protection, promotion and management of these sites is the duty of the state, as stipulated in the Constitution and laws of this country. These sites embody our historic memory and conscience. They are not objects for negotiation with whatever investors. They are not up for privatization of available for any private firm or individual to make a profit.”
The Culture Ministry, for its part, responded by saying that “we are not selling, we are not privatizing our heritage. Greece's cultural heritage, from antiquity until modern civilization, has always belonged to the Greek nation and the Greek people.”
Miller, meanwhile, spoke to Kathimerini in the wake of the controversy and explained that he had been misunderstood and had been talking only about abandoned sites that have been left to the mercy of vandals.
“The only thing I can do so my statements are not misinterpreted is to publish my proposal on the Internet,” Miller said.
To see the actual proposal made by the archaeologist, click here.