Mixed feelings as ancient treasures head overseas

In one of the most ambitious projects to be organized by Greece’s Culture Ministry in many years, a total of 543 ancient masterpieces – sculptures, paintings and jewels – will travel to museums in the United States and Canada from December 2014 to September 2016. Never before has such a large number of artifacts been away from Greece’s institutions for such a long period of time.

The treasures include a replica of the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon,” the only surviving bust of the Spartan king Leonidas, a kore (statue of young woman) from the Acropolis Museum, a gold laurel wreath from the Royal Tombs of Vergina near Thessaloniki, and other items from 22 museums across the country, which will be showcased in an exhibition titled “The Greeks – From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great,” whose North American tour will begin in Canada.

It is not the first time Greece is looking outside. Back in 2011, when most of the international media were caught up in the turmoil caused by the country’s bailout deal, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was hosting the much-hyped “Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy.”

Meanwhile, the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, was setting the foundations for a collaboration with the Louvre in Paris, which hosted an exhibition titled “Ancient Macedonia: In the Kingdom of Alexander the Great” in the same year. At the same time, Athens was experiencing the tension of a new exhibition – and with it criticism about the allegedly hefty price tag – titled “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” which is currently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Greek treasures have also traveled closer to home. After opening in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, the exhibition “Sealing History, Treasures from Greek Museums” has gone on display at the National Archaeological Museum in the country’s capital, Sofia.

A large number of the artifacts that will make the North American tour are already overseas while others are still in the process of packing. First stop is Canada. The Archaeological Museum in Athens is loaning 121 items, its Thessaloniki counterpart will send another 121, while 30 artifacts will travel from the Numismatic Museum and another 18 from the Archaeological Museum of Iraklio on Crete. The whole thing has been described as a “national endeavor” by Greek Culture Minister Panos Panayiotopoulos.

So what will become of the empty display cases back at home and what will Greece get in return? At the signing of the loan deal, Mark O’Neill, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, said that the two sides have discussed several ideas including an exhibition on the culture of the indigenous Haida people of British Columbia, Canada and Alaska.

But is that good enough?

“These exhibitions are a form of cultural diplomacy for Greece,” Culture Ministry general secretary Lina Mendoni said, offering the example of the Byzantium exhibition in the US. More than 40,000 people visited the show in less than a month, according to reports. Flattering reviews appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

“The same newspapers may criticize Greece on other issues, but they do praise it for all things it has the ability to organize well,” Mendoni said. The exhibition will travel to Los Angeles and Chicago, she said, adding that the ads and posters are a great advertisement for the country. “After all, no other sector can help the economy recover faster than tourism,” she said.

However, at a time when the country’s statistical service has recorded a 17.2 percent rise in museum visits in the first seven months of 2013 (along with a 12.4 percent increase in revenues) over the previous year, some are questioning the wisdom underpinning such loan deals.

“Can the works be replaced by other works?” According to the the General Directorate of Antiquities, the displays can be filled in with other artifacts. “Our storage areas are full of restored items,” Mendoni said. “This is a way to renew the interest of the Athenian public, like with the Kastoria icons that are to go on display at the Byzantine Museum,” she said.

Giorgos Kakavas, deputy director at National Archaeological Museum and director of the Numismatic Museum in Athens, says that notorious red tape could hamper the efforts. “How can we restore and exhibit new items given Greece’s bureaucracy?” he says.

“Sure, we want to liven up our presence abroad and particularly in places where we have not previously had exhibitions,” he said. But he is deeply concerned about the artifacts’ safety. Items destined for the Canada exhibition will have to be packed and unpacked around eight times, which increases the risk of an accident.

“I think the artifacts that go on loan should not stay abroad for more than three to five months,” Kakavas said. It’s hard to justify to museum visitors a decision to keep the displays empty for a period of 18 months to two years. Officials at the Archaeology Museum, he said, worked hard to make sure that some items would not leave the premises.

Kakavas suggests that Greek institutions could loan items which are stored away instead of pieces from their permanent collection. In return, foreign institutions could pay for their restoration, he suggests.

He does not hide his disappointment at the fact that although about a third of the artifacts that are on loan belong to the museums under his supervision, he is not a member of the scientific committee that decides what goes on loan. The director of the country’s leading museum, like himself, he suggests, should have a say ex officio.

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