Breath of relief on Museum Day

Two days before International Museum Day (tomorrow, May 18), Greece’s museums prepared to mark the occasion with a variety of events as museum guards decided to postpone a strike scheduled for tomorrow that would have closed all the country’s museums and archaeological sites. However, they are threatening to resume action next week. This was the coup de grace in the problem of museum opening hours that has been embarrassing the Culture Ministry since early April, a time when the ministry should have ensured there were enough staff before the summer season began, as happens in any civilized country. Meanwhile, the country’s major museums are working at half-strength. Some of the halls in the National Archaeological Museum are closed and the Numismatic Museum on busy Panepistimiou Street opens only at weekends. None can stay open after 3 p.m. – the winter closing time – and many have their own schedules due to staff shortages. The Culture Ministry, which is responsible for museums and sites, has remained silent on the issue. Minister Michalis Liapis, who is usually only too pleased to open museums and art collections, should not only have ensured there were enough guards but also have secured the funds to enable the museums to present a respectable image to the public. Just last Tuesday, he managed to get permission to hire 900 people and begin procedures to hire 600 more. But time is passing and before the new guards can be hired May will be over. More than half-measures are needed. Hiring seasonal workers or interns is not enough, nor is an 18-month contract and a month of training for people who often don’t really know what they are doing and who cannot work weekends. On the other hand, there are just 1,800 full-time guards for all the archaeological sites, 1,000 interns and 200 others. There are another 1,600 working at excavation sites. Meanwhile, the number of visitors is declining. In 2007, 12.3 percent fewer tickets were sold at museums compared to previous year, and there were 3.4 percent fewer visitors to archaeological sites last year. The museums are trying to improve their 1960s image, to become more accessible and to attract visitors with well-designed temporary exhibitions, educational programs and extras such as gift shops and cafes. However, the National Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine Museum and the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum may have drawn more crowds but the general picture is what counts. The Panhellenic Federation of Tourist Guides has written to the Culture and Tourism Ministers with regard to visitors’ complaints about restricting opening hours, which means tours have to be compressed to fit in as many sites as possible within the limited time available.