Little-known University of Athens museum houses a treasure trove of rocks and minerals

An unusually large chunk of black quartz, found in a mine in Brazil, is one of the most impressive displays at the little-known Museum of Mineralogy and Petrography, part of the University of Athens. Beside it lies a stalactite of smithsonite, discovered in the early 20th century at Lavrio in southeastern Attica, while the museum also boasts a showcase of rocks and minerals from the volcanic southeastern Aegean island of Santorini.

Greek universities have a plethora of hidden treasures that the public is not familiar with – either because of their own indifference or because of the institution’s failure to promote its collections. Yet a proper information campaign could attract a very knowledgeable, albeit niche, foreign audience from among the country’s many visitors.

“Ours was the first museum to open in modern Greece after the 1821 War of Independence. It was founded in 1837,” explains Athanasios Katerinopoulos, a professor of mineralogy at the University of Athens and director of the museum, which was transferred in 1998-2000 to the building housing the Geology and Geo-Environment Department.

Its collection brings together finds from all over the world that were either purchased or donated to the museum. Among the principal original donors were Fokion Negris (1846-1928), a politician and geologist, myriad philhellenes and overseas Greeks. The collection is spread out over three exhibition halls, while there is also a multimedia and lecture theater adjoining it.

The first hall contains specimens of minerals displayed in elegant cases that highlight their particular characteristics. The second contains samples with explanations of the different attributes of minerals, rocks and ores, while there is also a segment dedicated to meteorites that contains a sample of an iron meteorite from Argentina, and another, set in an unlit chamber, displaying minerals that glow in the dark.

The third chamber is old-school, with the museum’s original 19th-century wooden display cases showing the rest of the collection, which includes precious stones. Here you will also see a showcase on the geological makeup of Santorini’s volcano.

The museum receives an average of 7,000 visitors a year, and is planning to increase that number by running a more coordinated promotional campaign.

The University of Athens has another 15 museums, the second oldest of which – after the Museum of Mineralogy and Petrography – is the Museum of Anthropology, which was founded in 1886. The most recent addition, opened in 1999, is the museum of facial evolution and the history of dentistry.

The other 13 museums are dedicated to anatomy, archaeology and history of art, biblical and Christian archaeology, botany, paleontology and geology, crime, zoology, the history of education, pharmacology, natural sciences and technology and, finally, the history of the university itself.

Most are located in the buildings housing the relevant departments and are visited mostly by students and school groups. Others are in buildings owned by the institution in other parts of the city, as well as in the university’s big campus in the suburb of Zografou.

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