Friday, October 9, 2015

A "Must See" Temporary Exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum

The ongoing (and never ending?) economic crisis that has befallen Greece has had many ripple effects here. One of them is the significant reduction in the operational budget of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. One visible manifestation of this is the near absence of special exhibitions mounted at the museums here in Athens. It seems that only foreign museums will have “blockbuster’ Greek art exhibitions. A notable exception to this unfortunate pattern is a recently-opened gem of a temporary exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum (8 September 2015 – 8 October 2016). It is entitled “a dream among splendid ruins…”: Strolling through the Athens of travelers, 17th – 19th Century. This fascinating and eclectic display of 22 original illustrated books, drawings, paintings and other illustrative materials from the 17th through 19th centuries from the library of the Hellenic Parliament is melded effectively with 35 seldom-seen marble sculpture fragments from the National Museum’s ample storerooms which were found in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries around and on the Akropolis mostly.

The items in the exhibition serve to highlight the ancient monuments of the “Golden Age” of Athens and the exotic sights that the wealthy European travelers, products of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, came to see here on their “Grand Tour”. The exhibition is organized as five broad “imaginary strolls” that the travelers could have taken on the Akropolis and then around the area of the ancient city of Athens. To enhance the sense of atmosphere created by the displays there is a musical soundtrack playing in the background with European compositions from this broad era and transcriptions of traditional Greek folksongs. It ends with a glimpse into how the Hellenic Archaeological Service approached the tasks of organizing the antiquities found by chance and by excavation in the 19th century and then their display in a specially-built National Archaeological Museum. The recreation of one of the late-19th-century display cases of the National Museum with some of the gold and bronze objects from Mycenae indicates how far museology in Greece has come since the creation of the modern Greek state in 1832.

The substantial bilingual (Greek/English) exhibition catalogue is a must purchase at only 12 € (and there is a 30% discount for archaeologists with a free-entrance Museum and Site Pass from the Ministry). The contents cover the rationale for such an exhibition, the image of Athens in modern European visual culture, the background of the five strolls, the museological and museographic designs behind the exhibition, the conservation of antiquities in the exhibition, the sources of the musical accompaniment in the exhibition space and the historical imagery in the Photographic Archive of the National Archaeological Museum. Then there is the Catalogue of all of the items in the exhibition. Each essay is well-researched with full references and a rich bibliography.

This exhibition and its catalogue represents a succinct and stimulating introduction to the topography and monuments of Athens as well as the reasons why increasing numbers of travelers from western European, starting in the 17th century, came to seek the roots of western civilization here. The how and the why exhibitions are mounted is introduced too. In short, one should definitely see the exhibition even if you have no other pressing reason to visit the National Archaeological Museum with its old chestnuts.

If you missed the equally excellent exhibition on the Antikythera mechanism, the remnants of it that are not in the current travelling exhibition are still on view in a room off the entrance foyer of this new exhibition.

So head to the National Archaeological Museum to see this compact and compelling exhibition and then visit one of your favorite galleries to reacquaint yourself with some old friends. Finally, we eagerly await other imaginative exhibitions which rescue artifacts and art from their imprisonment in the storerooms of the museums of Athens.

David Rupp

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