Greece: transform museums to transform communities

Greece is known for its history and culture, and trademark designs from classical Greek architecture and art make an appearance throughout the U.S. and other countries, in everything from public buildings to mass-produced women’s accessories. The new Acropolis museum infused a new energy to the celebration of this culture and gathered over 300,000 fans on Facebook.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

New plans were announced over the past year to help the Greek capital preserve and showcase this cultural heritage, as well as its contemporary creative arts. Many of these plans are not new, but the announcements may be a sign that they will soon get underway. The discussion should not end at how we showcase history, culture and art, however.  Museums and art venues have a higher calling and a greater value to contribute to society. There is vast potential for Greek museums, historical sites and art venues to find new ways to deliver the past into the creativity and imaginations of Greeks and the world’s visitors, from where it will emerge back into communities as new forms of art, design and social interactions.

Greece’s Central Archaeological Council (KAS) announced a plan for a new Archaeological Museum of Athens to showcase the full timeline of the city’s history. This plan will involve an international architectural design competition, as with the new Acropolis Museum, and a two million euro grant from the City of Athens. The first stage in this new city archaeological museum plan is a project to improve the Plato’s Academy, an archaeological site in the center of Athens previously described as neglected: “Eroding walls, rusty fences, haphazard collections of ancient stones, and a lack of explanatory signboards characterize a place that should be a world heritage site.” The Plato’s Academy renovation is estimated at one million euros, though existing funding is enough to cover the call for design proposals.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art is also preparing for a new home. By October 2013, with funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERFD), it will be housed in the old Fix brewery, Greece’s first major brewery.

There are signs that steps may soon be taken toward a more comprehensive strategy to making important cultural sites accessible. The Onassis Foundation announced Rethink Athens, a plan to improve central Athens through urban development, including pedestrian roads connecting archaeological sites and museums, bicycle lanes and an extension of the tram line. The Foundation is funding a European architectural design competition, with the hope that the urban development project will be funded from EU structural funds (ESPA).

Can Athens adopt a comprehensive strategy to integrate art and culture with the community – a strategy that goes beyond initiatives to upgrade museums and make archaeological sites more accessible? Questions remain. Funding for museum security is scheduled for significant cuts, event after two museum robberies this year, one at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in January, and one at the National Gallery in February. The existing National Archaeological Museum of Athens, renovated ahead of the 2004 summer Olympics, still has insufficient space to showcase its entire permanent collection and insufficient funds to keep all the wings open and fully staffed. Outside its walls, part of the neighborhood has been a gathering place for drug users, and the streets around the museum, the nearby National Technical University of Athens and the nearest metro station, Omonia, are dirty and graffitied.

Further, another portion of the Altar of the Twelve Gods was discovered in February 2011 under the electric railway (ISAP). The Altar, near the Acropolis and ancient Agora, is a significant site for understanding ancient Athens: it was the central point from which distances were measured. KAS granted ISAP permission to rebury the Altar, and Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Council of State, ruled in July to allow burying it so that the electric rail continues to run over it, despite a petition by a citizens’ initiative requesting that this action be suspended and that the government consider an alternative solution of constructing an underground line for the train. In this example, relevant authorities (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Regional Authority of Athens, City of Athens) failed to act to adopt and implement a solution that would allow the site to be excavated and integrated into a network highlighting and better utilizing sites of ancient Athens, including the Acropolis, the Agora and Kerameikos.

It takes more than beautiful physical structures, clean streets and easy public access for a museum or site to help us connect with our past and inspire our future. Museums are trying out innovative ways to connect with people and communities through social media and interactive educational programs. Examples of this exist in Greece and throughout the world:

  • The Municipal Art Gallery of Larissa/Georgios Katsigras Museum has a learning center that offers free workshops for children and adults.
  • In 2009, the Portland Art Museum – one of the oldest museums in the U.S. – brought in the China Design Now exhibit and invited the community to be a part of the exhibition by creating and contributing content and hosting events throughout the city. (More at FastCompany.)
  • A competition in 2011 sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded grants to 12 U.S. libraries and museums for proposals to create facilities where teens can explore digital media, technology, art and literature through hands-on learning experiences.

There are also international networks that help museum teams meet and learn from each other in these areas. The MuseumNext 2012 conference in Barcelona May 23-25, for example, will focus on Digital Participation, Digital Marketing and Digital Challenges through presentations and interactive or hands-on sessions.

Common Threads: Tribute To Philadelphia’s Youth. Mural by Meg Saligman.

Local communities can also take an active role in creating opportunities for museums to be a part of the community. Since 1959, Philadelphia’s Percent for Art program takes one percent of a construction contract paid by the City to fund art in public spaces, which has helped fill today’s streets, squares and parks with art. Boston landed on the Fast Company’s Fast Cities Fast Cities 2010 for its innovative approach to supporting the arts community through a housing program. The Artist Space Initiative (ASI) supports the creation of spaces for artists to live and work in industrial areas or emerging neighborhoods that meet artists’ needs.

In Greek cities, visitors will see buildings, long occupied with residents and small businesses, that have unfinished or unpainted outer sidewalls. Ask local residents about this phenomenon, and they will tell you that tax policies create an incentive for owners to leave the building unfinished to avoid property taxes that kick in when a building is completed. Greece’s municipalities and central government should be exploring tax reforms that will make it beneficial for property owners to not only fix this aesthetic disgrace, but to invite and commission local artists to turn gray concrete blobs on the cityscape into canvasses for work that will speak to or reflect the community.

Athens, and indeed, all of Greece, has a wealth of art and culture – historic and contemporary. In addition to showcasing such treasures, the country has the potential to explore innovative ways to help culture, art and community come together. If culture and art institutions, local communities, national authorities and private businesses all enter this discussion and learn from successful examples around the world, Greece can develop a strategy to transform its heritage into an inspiration and a pulse for its modern communities.

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