Coffee on the menu at Athens museums

Museum cafes are becoming popular meeting places. A few years ago the very idea would have struck some as sacrilege, but museum visitors today welcome it as satisfying a basic need. It would be going too far to say that the lack of cafes kept people away from museums, but it certainly is one way of attracting them, especially in Greece. With the lowest rate of visits to historical monuments in Europe, Greeks are second to last on the list of visits to museums and galleries, only ahead of the Bulgarians. There is nothing new about that. In recent years, directors of large museums all over the world have turned to new methods of attracting the public, including temporary exhibitions, concerts by small music groups, lectures, and revamped stores selling useful, affordable items. And of course places for people to relax. Museum cafes were refurbished, and new habits were encouraged, such as an evening at the Benaki Musuem, and in carefully chosen spaces, such as the atrium of the Cycladic Museum. Not all the visitors are part of the regular museum-visiting crowd, but they do get to know the museum in their own way. Greek state museums are adopting the same approach. A typical example is the cafe and veranda of the new Acropolis Museum on Dionysiou Aeropagitou, which stirred up much discussion, as if a museum visitor should be ashamed of wanting to enjoy some refreshment in such a location. Luckily, many Greek organizations are moving away from the concept of museum as mausoleum. It’s a slow process, of course, as many state-run museums don’t even have a canteen where you can get a glass of water. Familiarity with the place creates a new public. Frequent visits to the cafe of a museum might bring new visitors to the exhibitions. It is worth asking why, in a country where museums are constantly being built, the public is so unwilling to visit them. Athens’s most recent acquisition of this type is the outdoor cafe of the Numismatic Museum on Panepistimiou Street. Just five minutes’ walk from Syntagma metro station, in the garden of the museum behind the gilt railings is a small, modern, friendly glass-walled cafe. When it rains there isn’t much space inside for tables. Most people stay long enough for a quick coffee or a break from shopping, but afterward some of them do go up to the second floor of the Iliou Mansion to visit the collection, which opened recently. The 30-seat cafe opens 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and 10 a.m – 6 p.m. at weekends. It offers coffee, sodas, sandwiches and pastries. «I’d like it to be a garden in the center of Athens. It would be good for Athenians to enjoy it and at the same time it could motivate them to get acquainted with the museum,» said director Despina Evgenidou. Being outside the museum, it need not be tied to museum hours, as long as security measures were taken. The cafe in the National Archaeological Museum has in the past attracted its share of controversy, from overpricing to rude employees. The most recent was when Greece’s foremost museum was sending visitors to another cafe since their own was closed. «We have had problems from time to time with the people running the cafe,» admitted director Nikos Kaltsas. He links the reopening of the basement cafe with the revamping of the shop, which is doing good business. «Our cafe can’t have an independent exit from the museum. So it can’t operate at different hours.» The newly refurbished cafe offers the usual fare with a few unusual items such as mastic from Chios and sahlep. The tables in the atrium offer an excellent view and a respite before visiting the rest of the museum. In another corner of Athens, at the Byzantine Museum, work is under way on the cafe-restaurant in the west wing, as you enter from Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. It is part of a large park that will stretch to Aristotle’s Lyceum on Rigillis Street, which will have outdoor exhibitions, a small theater and special walks. «Work on the interior of the cafe will be finished by December, and tenders will be invited in early 2008. It should be in operation by spring. The project is in two stages. At first the cafe will operate indoors and in a covered arcade that seats 100 people. In the second stage, which includes the refurbishment of the main building, the aim is to increase capacity to 250 seats,» said the museum’s director Dimitris Constantios. He believes that people want a place where they can gain knowledge, which is also pleasant to be in, has an identity, and is not an oppressive environment. «Museum cafes should be meeting places, but ones that have some connection with the identity of the museum.» Flexible, independent, friendly cafes are gaining popularity. The restaurant of the Benaki Museum on Koumbari Street stays open late on Thursdays, offering a view of Athens at night. The cafe at the Benaki annex on Pireos Street is next to the shop, and one complements the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in natural light by day and the lights of the avenue by night. It stays open till 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The French chef has innovative dishes on the menu at the Cycladic Art Museum, which is open till 5 p.m., as is the tasteful cafe at the Fryssiras Museum in Plaka.