Partial renovations, partial collections

The fate of the largest museum in Greece, a veritable treasure trove of over 20,000 ancient Greek masterpieces, the richest collection in the world, is hanging on a thread. In just two months an attempt is being made to make up for years-long delays, the indifference of decades, omissions and bad management. In two months’ time this facility, the National Archaeological Museum, will reopen its doors to the public after a controversial renovation, a truly arduous task that was initially intended as an extension of the basement into the surrounding square, as was announced in the mid-1990s. These proclamations soon changed and the extension was postponed until after 2005 (if then) and the dream of highlighting this impressive collection was reduced to carrying out a limited renovation of the ground floor. Last week, when new Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis went to inspect the site with the press in tow, the true picture emerged. They saw a work site full of scaffolding, nylon coverings and technicians working feverishly, some to clean the facade of the ravages of pollution, others up on ladders restoring the gilt decorations, the huge columns in the entrance court, and the details of various sculptures. In 1999, cracks opened in the museum walls during the earthquake, particularly on the upper floor, which was temporarily closed. There were fewer problems on the ground floor, with just a few cracks in the western end, added to the general problem of damp and neglect. It was then that the need for an extension became more pressing. However, there were also fundamental problems not faced by any other museum of such standing. For example, the museum had no elevator for people with disabilities, no emergency exit, and no air conditioning. «It really shouldn’t have an operating license,» V. Handakas, head of the General Directorate for the Restoration of Museums, told the members of the Central Archaeological Council (KAS). A few years earlier at another KAS meeting, in June 2000, the then director of the museum, I. Touratsoglou, characterized the cracks caused by the earthquake as «transparent.» «When they were cleaned, you could see right through them,» he had said. It had also emerged that it would cost 11 billion drachmas (32.3 million euros) to reinforce the building, with another 4.5 billion (13.2 million euros) for air conditioning. At the time, everyone wanted to begin work quickly so it could be completed by 2004 and the more extensive changes could be completed six years later. Meanwhile, after much vacillation, delays and cancellations, the current «semi-renovations» will cost just 5.9 million euros (2 billion drachmas), which is indicative of the type of work to be carried out. Shortly before the museum was closed for renovation, during the opening of the exhibition «Fragile Luxury,» the former culture minister gave some cause for hope that the extension would take place after 2005, emphasizing that while the museum was closed, «the plan to extend the basement into the surrounding square would be studied.» The legal aspects of the plan, he said, had been well prepared and would be included in CSFIII, the European Union’s aid package for 2000-2006. When we asked leading ministry officials if the museum had been included in CSFIII, they claimed ignorance of the fact, saying that the museum’s extension was not a simple issue but one that called for an international architectural competition. The National Archaeological Museum closed in October 2002 and is scheduled to reopen in June; that much is certain. However, not all of it will open as promised. The first floor will still be closed and the air-conditioning system will now be in the form of a «moderate intervention,» to be completed after the Olympic Games. That is the reason for the large ventilation shafts visible. Those who have visited the museum in recent years will well remember the number of times first aid needed to be provided for visitors who suffered fainting spells from the heat. The question, of course, is why everything has to be done at the last minute, an approach which, along with the assurance that «we will manage,» does not take the unforeseen into account. New problems have been added to the existing ones, delays and the unexpected, such as a legal tussle in the assigning of the building reinforcement contract that has delayed the project even further. There is, however, some good news. The program for exhibiting the museum’s treasures covers a 6,000-year span of civilization. A new feature is the temporary exhibition «Agon» of 280 artifacts including antiquities from 20 museums abroad, and the Bronzes collection. A hall that had been closed since 1979 will be reopened, covering in effect five halls, where unique masterpieces will be displayed with 54 additions. The museum has one of the world’s richest collections of bronzes, small and large, all masterpieces. Some are being taken out of storage for the first time, as are many sculptures. In fact, the reopening includes three collections: the Prehistoric, the Bronzes and the Pottery. For the first time we will see 70 gold objects, the Neolithic treasures, which are unique according to those who have seen them. The popular Mycenaean Collection will include 5,000 objects in halls 3 and 4. The main hall will be in three sections: Grave Circles A and B, Mycenaean citadels, and burial chambers.

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