NEWS

Monuments and museums battle with old problems

The coming of the new millennium found most Greek museums and archaeological sites stuck in the past century. Projects planned years ago are still awaiting implementation, and large museums are behind the times. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens lacks air conditioning, while many archaeological sites lack sufficient security personnel to ward off theft. The latest victim of antiquity thieves was the site of Nikopolis, in Preveza, where a marble Roman stele 34 X 35 cm was stolen. Many more antiquities have been lost due to a lack of guards, fences or a functioning alarm system. This, plus the decreasing number of visitors, is a cause of concern to the Culture Ministry, which is now pinning its hopes on the Third Community Support Framework and the magical date 2004, when the Olympic Games will be held in Athens. The ministry has been drawing up models and plans for years, but few have been implemented. Culture is the heavy industry of Greece, as Melina Mercouri once said, but it is routinely forgotten until election time. A glaring example is that of Rhamnous. In February 1997, thieves used anesthetic spray to disable the single guard before stealing two 4th-century BC pieces. At that time the site did not even have power or telephone. Later that same year, when the Culture Ministry made an announcement at Rhamnous in the presence of Prime Minister Costas Simitis of a project focusing on 70 archaeological sites, electricity and a telephone were provided in a single day. Three and a half years later, the ministry has yet to account for the projects it announced. Have they been completed, and if so, where and how? Number of visitors to museums drops Dramatically low, was the comment of Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos on the annual number of visitors to museums. Last June, he emphasized the low attendance at museums in relation to archaeological sites. He notified museum directors of his targeted increase in the number of museum visitors of 25 percent by 2006, which would represent a rise from the current 2.1 million visitors to over 2.6 million, as well as the goal of 7.5 million visitors to archaeological sites within five years, as compared to the 6 million today. In the four-month period between January and April, according to the National Statistics Service (ESYE), there was a total of 281,818 visitors compared to 323,618 in 2000, a drop of 12.92 percent. By contrast, visitors to archaeological sites in the same period increased marginally by 1.26 percent, to 780,175 as against 770,502 last year. This translates into income of 1,475 billion drachmas in 2000 as opposed to 1,410 billion drachmas this year, an overall decrease of 4.4 percent. These figures include 393 million drachmas from museum ticket sales (464 million drachmas last year) and 1,017 billion drachmas from ticket sales at archaeological sites (1,011 billion drachmas last year). The figures vary from museum to museum and from month to month. Indicatively, the month of April saw 26,613 visitors to the National Archaeological Museum in 2001 as compared to 25,809 in 2000, 9,939 visitors to the museum of Ancient Olympia (10,418 last year) and 17,713 visitors to the Knights’ Palace on Rhodes as opposed to 17,000 last year, amounting to an overall rise of 8.56 percent for the month. As for archaeological sites, Epidaurus (35,028 visitors as opposed to 37,230 in 2000), the Mycenae Acropolis (25,953 as against 27,623 in 2000), Sounion (16,220 as against 18,916 in 2000) and Delphi (24,500 as against 26,500 in 2000), all saw a drop in April. The Acropolis (93,467 as against 91,311 in 2000), Ancient Olympia (20,401 as against 19,715 in 2000) and Mystras (12,335 as against 11,730 in 2000), saw visitors increase somewhat. There was an observable rise this year in visitor numbers at other archaeological sites; 152,454 as compared to 125,709 in 2000. Antiquity thieves run riot The scarcity of guards means the way is open for the peddlers of the cultural heritage. From 1987 to the first months of 2001, the fraud squad, in conjunction with the sub-department responsible for the illicit trade in antiquities, reported 23,007 confiscations of ancient artifacts found in the hands of traders. Overall, this amounts to over 350 cases of thefts of classical antiquities, Byzantine icons, church objects and ancient coins. If another 5,166 more modern objects are included in this list, it adds up to an impressive total of 28,173 stolen items. The most attractive items for antiquities thieves are coins, because they are easily hidden. The director of the Numismatic Museum, I. Touratzoglou, speaking on the Illegal Trafficking of Cultural Goods Within the European Union, noted that 12,504 ancient Greek, 1,697 Byzantine and 357 Roman coins had ended up illegally in antiquities markets, of which 2,454 coins were stolen from Thessaly, 4,301 from Macedonia, 3,703 from the Peloponnese and 1,154 from Crete. It is indicative that the number of guards at museums come to 60 at the National Archaeological Museum (which has a total of 108 posts), 45 at the Acropolis (with 85 posts in total), 50 at the Museum of Iraklion (with posts for 75), 40 at Delphi (with a total of 60 posts) and so forth. New hirings of day guards have not taken place since 1995 and of night guards, since 1992. Third Community Support Framework offers ray of hope The Third Community Support Framework has funded museums to the tune of 160 billion drachmas and laid aside 167 billion drachmas for monuments and archaeological sites. The new museums will get the lion’s share of the 160 billion drachmas, including those of the Acropolis, the City of Athens, Patras, Larissa, Aegina, Pella, Samos, Arta, Messara, Sparta, Halkida, the Didymoteichos Byzantine Museum, and the Piraeus building of the Benaki Museum. Buildings such as the Fix Factory in Athens and Hymofix in Sparta which have acquired new uses will also have a share. In addition, the money is to be used for extensions of and improvements to the National Archaeological Museum, the National Gallery, the archaeological museums of Iraklion, Thessaloniki, Delphi, Piraeus, Volos, Kavala, Ioannina, Lavrion, Marathon and Olympias as well as the Byzantine museums of Athens and Thessaloniki. Smaller projects will be carried out on 50 permanent exhibitions, archaeological warehouses and conservation centers. The 167 billion drachmas set aside for monuments and archaeological sites will be spent on the Olympia, Athens and Delphi triangle, a second triangle of Dion, Vergina and Pella, other archaeological sites, ancient theaters and Byzantine monuments. Few services The problem with the museums and archaeological sites is the paucity of the services they offer. A museum policy is not confined to the nature of the exhibitions but should also include services and cleanliness, to name but some aspects. It took 20 years to construct toilets at Mystras; ramps for people with special needs are non-existent. The country is moving toward 2004 with an antiquated management of its monuments. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture is constantly opening new museums and giving assurances that everything will be fixed, going as far as to declare sites open on the night of the first full moon in September. Although an interesting idea, it caused tremendous anxiety in its application. Fifteen guards were added that night to the 30 working on the Acropolis. The following day dawned on bottles, rubbish, even condoms, that had been left on the site. Athens by night is an idea that sells, but instead of being hastily drafted to such fiestas, perhaps guards’ numbers should be increased so that the monuments are protected first of all. Only then can they be used for other occasions.