Show sheds light on WWII efforts to salvage priceless antiquities

Show sheds light on WWII efforts to salvage priceless antiquities

The National Archaeological Museum of Athens is hosting a small exhibition – running beside a big show commemorating its 150th anniversary – to acquaint the public with the efforts of archaeologists, guards, technical staff and volunteers during World War II to hide and preserve its priceless collections from widespread looting by occupying forces.

A month after Greece became embroiled in war with Italy – nixing Mussolini’s ultimatum issued on October 28, 1940 – every museum in the country received a letter from the government giving detailed instructions as to how they were to hide their treasures from the invaders. One of the proposals was to pack the exhibits in crates, hidden under sandbags. The other, which was more widely applied, involved burying the artifacts under museum floors, in courtyards and stowing them in the basements of any state institution.

The exhibition, which has just opened and runs through December 8 in the NAM’s courtyard cafe, consists of 24 photographs from the museum’s archive showing scenes from those fraught days.

“The methods used to hide the artifacts is what’s important and this is what we’re trying to showcase,” says NAM director Maria Lagogianni. “The objects were separated into three categories: gold items, which were carefully crated according to specific protocols and stored in the vaults of the Bank of Greece, smaller items that were sent to secret hideaways around Athens, and sculptures, which were wrapped in tar paper and buried in huge pits dug on the museum’s premises.”

Visitors will have the chance to tour the areas of the museum where the artifacts were hidden, while Lagogianni says that efforts to shed light on this chapter of the museum’s history will not end with the exhibition.

“We are also planning an e-book that will be enriched with new material on this topic every year,” says Lagogianni. “We want to reach out to other museums that hid their collections during the occupation too.”

When the occupation forces marched into Athens in April 1941, the NAM’s significant treasures were squirreled away safe from harm. The task had taken six months to complete and, during that time, the museum had appeared completely abandoned, as the work was usually carried out in the middle of the night.

National Archaeological Museum, 44 Patission, tel 213.214.4800. Open daily (except public holidays) 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.

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