At 1 p.m., there were very few visitors at the Goulandris Museum in the Athens suburb of Pangrati. The personnel very courteous, all at their posts, but the public could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Friday was the first time museums opened, after almost eight months of silence. A certain stupor is a given, the relationship with the exhibits is not automatic, nor is it self-evident that it will be re-established instantaneously. Maybe people will respond more readily today and tomorrow.
The excellent collections of the Goulandris Museum or the New National Gallery need an audience to come to life. Otherwise, the light in Vincent van Gogh’s “Olive Picking” is without companions. And this loneliness is palpable in the rooms. It’s not the ambiance of some random quiet day of the year, without crowds. But it’s the loneliness of a space that has been shut for months, unvisited by anybody. Long-term human absence leaves its own footprint. A thick bleakness.
It’s not enough for the museums to open. We too must also “open up,” and find our pace after a year of discontinuous daily life, an atrophied normality.
However, this comeback is also a restart. What happened is not just a simple shut down/open up sequence. Many things inside and outside of us have moved, the sense of time, access to technology, the evaluation and re-evaluation of things. Maybe culture can also fill some of the cracks created. But we need to back culture as an example to follow, a way of life. An active minister of culture is not enough, even though she is present everywhere. The government and the opposition must also mobilize.
We are a country of almost 11 million people and we celebrate when tourists flood our museums and archaeological sites. For a country’s economy to depend on tourism is already problematic without adding the sad conclusions that museums owe their reason for being mostly to foreign travelers.
Obviously museums everywhere, not just in Greece, are poles of attraction. Woe to them if they weren’t. That’s why they must constantly renew themselves, experiment, be living organisms. But we must all contribute to this vitality. Politicians included. The change in paradigm that linked the official celebration of the bicentennial of the start of the Greek War of Independence to the National Gallery must be strengthened and continued in order to gain content and not just glamour.