Linking memory, tradition and contemporary concerns
How did the Ethnological Museum of Thrace come into being? Founding the museum has been a landmark in my relationship with Thrace and in my attitude to the right to self-definition through historical memory and the need for a redefinition of popular culture. What were the chief problems? How did you manage to find somewhere to house the museum? Finances were and still are our chief problem because funding is crucial in enabling the museum to operate at a level that honors Thrace and in general corresponds to the contemporary role of a museum. The Ethnological Museum of Thrace is self-funded and housed in rented premises that date back to 1899. Communication network Tell us a little about the building you restored. The neoclassical stone building was constructed in 1899 as the summer residence of a business man from Alexandroupolis by the name of Altinalmazi. In 1937 it was bought by Stefanos Hadziconstantis, a merchant, as a dowry for his granddaughter Chryssoula Zafeiriou. She married Grigoris Chrysostomos, a lawyer and deputy who was merchant marine minister in 1948-49. Liberal statesman Sofocles Venizelos stayed there in January 1951. Now the house belongs to Zafeiria Chrysostomou, the wife of Nikolaos Papathanassiou. The building was listed for preservation in January 1993, and in 1998 it was renovated by the family of Polychronis Giannakidou in order to establish the Ethnological Museum of Thrace. Its new mission has made the building a place that introduces people to and promotes Thracian culture. It is also a place for research and intellectual creativity that takes inspiration from memory and popular tradition. Are ethnological issues very sensitive in an area like Thrace? Yes, of course. But Thrace bears memories of coexistence among people who are different. The museum must highlight the codes of that coexistence and of all the cultural communication networks of Thrace. How were the collections created and how are they being expanded? In 1967, when I came to Thrace, I had just graduated from high school in Thessaloniki. I was most impressed by the rural scene and I started to collect objects, initially ones of visual interest. That soon led me to a landscape of particular interest and importance that has a lot to teach us. From the outset, I was only interested in Thrace. There is a lot of material and knowledge about the social fabric of the region in recent years. How do you engage the local community in dialogue? By various activities that are aimed at linking contemporary social issues with tradition and the knowledge it encompasses. We have paved the way for educational programs for primary and secondary schools in museums of recent cultural heritage, and we have a creative workshop every Saturday, always on topics related to Thrace. Do you have contacts with similar museums abroad? Not many, because the museum has only been in operation for four years and its main aim is to establish its presence and define its role locally. In your experience, what role can such a museum play? The museum should be seen as an opportunity to acquire knowledge and think critically about the messages of a global society. How do you deal with matters like staffing? It’s rather difficult, because very few specialized personnel live in the provinces, for financial reasons. How do you get funding? We have had some grants from the Culture Ministry, which are important in terms of both finances and morale. We have set up a shop selling Thracian products – decorative and useful objects in line with modern aesthetics. We have also organized the production and distribution of traditional products through a separate profit-making company. Is there a way of making popular culture attractive in the 21st century? By redefining popular culture. Instead of being spectators, we can become participants and stakeholders in our culture, which will then be more attractive because it will be part of our lives. How has Alexandroupolis responded to your project? As in any place, there are some people who were pleased and who take part and many more who are indifferent to it.