Benefactor’s dream comes true

The new Museum of Islamic Art at Kerameikos is not just a wonderful addition to the capital’s art scene, but another piece of evidence of the ingenuity that imbues the Benaki Museum’s policy. This, the oldest privately owned and run museum in Greece, should set an example to the state-run museum services. In just a few years, the Benaki has succeeded in accumulating considerable assets and in attracting significant donations. It has also put these assets to full use by extending its range and opening new branches. The most important aspect of its policy, however, is creating «communicating vessels,» sections that can be seen independently of the core and thus make a more effective impact. In the context of the recent opening of the Museum of Islamic Art, Kathimerini met up with Benaki Director Angelos Delivorias to discuss the museum organization in general and, more specifically, the political dimensions of the new museum in terms of East-West relations. (Below are extracts from the original interview.) What is the significance of a museum of Islamic art opening in Greece at a time of historical and political upheaval, when Islam is under fire on many fronts? We mustn’t isolate this museum as a Benaki initiative, but examine Greece’s stance more generally. If we had not received the green light from the Greek state, it would have been impossible to create an institution such as this one, dedicated to Islamic culture. I see its establishment as the equivalent of a friendly gesture, a «hello» to another world to which we were, and still are, tied. This was the will of the founder, the legacy of Antonis Benakis, who created the collection of Islamic art that now comprises some 98 percent of the exhibits. What does Islamic culture have to teach us? Without being a specialist on Islam, I would say that it teaches a way of life of an exceptionally high standard. The concept of a heaven on earth is one we encounter in the history of Islamic architecture, in the gardens, the decorative arts… Is a museum able to break down prejudices? Abroad especially, there are many major museums that showcase their Islamic art collections. So far, the museum has had many visitors from abroad, as well as international press coverage. It is put across as something positive taking place in Greece… I’m not sure that a visit to the museum, however, is enough to break down prejudices. I do hope that the museum awakens an interest to explore new things, that after visiting the museum, people will leave with a desire to know or read more about Islamic culture. The museum, of course, cannot serve as a history book – it has different mechanisms and a different purpose. It has to be eye-catching and have fluid displays. I would like to see the Museum of Islamic Art becoming a meeting point for scholars of Islamic culture, history, literature and sciences, to see small groups of scholars coming together. A few days ago, we had a group of Egyptian archaeologists over visiting the exhibition of icons from Mount Sinai. They were very moved when they saw the Islamic Art Museum. The new wings of the Benaki Museum, on Pireos and in Kerameikos, are located beyond the traditional center. How do they alter the connections people make with the center itself? The Benaki Museum has based the entirety of its new structure on a system of satellite branches. It is following a policy of radial development. Newly made independent departments include the historical archive, which is in Kifissia, the photographic archive and the archive on Greek architecture, which is on Pireos. All these concentric circles, however, are connected even though they maintain their independence. As far as the areas where we decided to set up the new wings are concerned, this is because we are not just concerned with the present, but the future too. Athens is not just the historic center plus Kolonaki. Soon we will be opening two new museums: a children’s museum in Faliron, containing our wonderful collection of toys and other displays, as well as a museum dedicated to [Nikos] Hadzikyriakos-Ghika at Syntagma, which I hope will show art from the 1930s. It will be in a building bequeathed to us by the artist himself, along with his home and his artwork. This shows how the Benaki operates a policy of communicating vessels. This also reflects the personality of Benaki himself: He was interested in the Delphic festivals, Byzantium, Ottoman rule, Islam. I think that, wherever he is, he is happy. We are making his dreams come true. What is the Benaki’s mission today? In cooperation with the equivalent state-run institutions, we want to promote the education and cultural awareness of the public. Even to give a few moments of joy and pleasure, because, with everything happening in the world right now, it is our duty to boost morale. Within the huge web of cultural education, museums play their own, specific role and it is always a supportive one. We also have another duty, though: to export our own cultural product. This is something that has not been attempted in an organized manner so far, on a national level, because there is no plan for it. In Germany, for example, cultural affairs belong to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Culture is the most sensitive channel of communication between peoples, so it is only natural that the leadership of a foreign ministry should take full advantage of it. New money, old patrons Is the museum able to afford, in terms of finances and personnel, all the new initiatives it has embarked upon? The Benaki Museum’s profits, due to an increase in its assets, are greater than its expenses. The museum also receives many endowments, not from people who belong to the new monied class, but from those who bequeath various assets to the museum. Antonis Benakis had a vision of an urban, modern Greece. He was one of those diaspora Greeks who continued a tradition that began soon after the Greek War of Independence, of charitable donations and benefactors. Today, we can no longer really speak of patrons, but of people who make donations, be it in the form of some advertising, a bit of charity work, and always after we have had to beg for it. This has nothing to do with the genuine desire some people had in the past to give their all in order to help lay the foundations for the future of the country.