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Day 6: Blinded by the canon or inventing “the Greek”?

On Day 6, the team visited the National Archaeological Museum in the area of Exarcheia. The history of the museum as an institutional space seems to have its very own interesting itinerary.

The history of the museum as an institutional space seems to have its very own interesting itinerary. The first national archaeological museum in Greece was established by Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of the then newly-established independent Greece in 1829 in Aegina, one of the islands of the Saronic Gulf (see figure 2). At the time, Greece was geographically smaller than it is today; the northern parts still under Ottoman rule and the Ionian islands were under British protectorate. The location of the museum in Aegina was ideally situated, centrally, between Attica and the Pelloponese.

In 1858, an international architectural competition was announced for the location and the architectural design of the new museum.


The initial architectural plan of the relocated museum was conceived by Ludwig Lange later modified by Panagis Kalkos, the main architect, Armodios Vlachos and Ernst Ziller. The conception of the museum was thus largely a Greco-Germanic collaboration.

The construction of what was initially called the ‘Central Archaeological Museum (Κεντρικόν Μουσεῖον) began in 1866 and was completed in 1889 using funds from the Greek Archaeological Society, the society for Mycenae and the Greek Government.

In the turbulent times of World War II museum artefacts were sealed in boxes and buried, in order to avoid destruction and looting. In 1945 exhibits were again displayed. Overall, and throughout its early history, the museum served as a canon for the re-assembling of fragmented Greek artefacts and initially aimed at shaping the new identity of a nation that was previously under Ottoman occupation.

National Cultural Heritage?

So how ‘Greek’ is the National Archaeological museum?

In 1866, when the idea of National Archaeological museum was conceived, Greece was under Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchy, and under Bavarian rule, more specifically under the reign of King George (1863-1913). This was yet again a turbulent time for Greece as a nation: The Balkan Wars, The Macedonian front, The Epirus front, naval operations in the Aegean and the Ionian seas, the confrontations off the Dardanelles and the eventual ‘end of the war’, with the treaty of Bucharest concluded the war leaving Greece with southern Epirus,the Southern parts of Macedonia, Crete and the Aegean islands, except for the Dodecanese that was occupied by Italy in 1911 (see figure 3). Greece’s geographical area and population was therefore largely doubled only in the first decade of the 19th century. All these events shaped the museum’s representation of a ‘national’ cultural heritage.


Greece under Bavarian Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchy is currently understood by scholars as a crypto-colony: a nation that was taking shape under the aegis of Bavarian rule. This had an effect on the nation’s cultural identity. Central European rule together with the Greek government aimed at ‘cleansing’ Ottoman elements from the aesthetic landscape of Greece in order to establish what the constitution of that time considered as ‘Greek’. In negotiating the cultural identity of a newly shaped nation with a deep and dominant historical past, the classification of any Ottoman period aesthetics was deemed ‘ungreek’ and had to be ‘cleansed’ in a rather orientalising fashion.

The National Archaeological Museum as a building is thus part of a large trend at the time: 19th century neo-classicism, an aesthetic movement that drew inspiration from a rather selective reception of Graeco-Roman art, leaving archaic or late antiquity aesthetics largely out of the constellation of perceived ‘Hellenism’. The movement largely followed up from the 18th century, when Johann Winckelmann defined Neoclassicism simultaneously with the rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Neoclassicism was a popular style all over Europe as European students of the arts returned from their own educational itineraries in Italy, known as ‘the Grand Tour’ to their home countries with newly rediscovered Greco-Roman aesthetic ideals in mind.

In the 19th century, neo-classicists enthusiastically discovered and appreciated the previously Ottoman-occupied Greek space, and saw Greek art and culture through the rose-tinted lenses of German Romanticism. Greek art and architecture was mediated through and regularized, as ‘cleansed’, and ‘corrected’ attempting to restore the monuments of Greece, yet not always consciously. This was well fitted to the political direction of Greece as a parliamentary constitutional monarchy so Athens was re-designed in places featuring neo-classical architecture in the hopes of restoring a nation in its perceived ‘classical’ glory.

The museum building was no excpetion to the trend, yet has since then undergone many expansions. Most important were the construction of a new east wing in the early 20th century to accommodate the rapidly growing collection of artifacts as Greece was growing in terms of geographical breadth, population, and important finds. The museum was closed from about early 2003-July 2004, in the light of Athens hosting the Olympic Games. A new plan has been made for a subterranean expansion at the front of the museum.


The Objects: Treasure-hunt, the Prominent Men

The museum, as of today has a breathtaking collection of display, one that has certainly marked European Archaeology: from the Mycenaean objects, the ‘Agamemnon’ mask, the Minoan frescoes from Thera, and even Egyptian Antiquities from the Stathatos Alexandrian Collection, to name but some. Artifacts derive from archaeological excavations from all over Greece: Santorini, Mycenae, Tiryns, Dodona, Vaphio, Rhamnous, Lycosura, Aegean islands, Delos, the Temple of Aphaea in Aegina, the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in Sparta, Pylos, Thebes, Athens, Vari Cave, the Antikythera shipwreck and from various other places in Greece.

The museum collection further comprises a 4th-century BC golden funerary wreath and a 6th-century BC marble statue of a woman, which were classified as looted antiquities and were eventually repatriated in 2007 by the Getty Museum in California, after a 10-year-long legal dispute between the Getty Center and the Greek Government. One year earlier, the Los Angeles foundation agreed to return a 4th-century BC tombstone from Greek Thebes and a 6th-century BC votive relief from the island of Thassos.

The Museum architectural and exhibition infrastructure facilitates a complicated but very strategic access to the public with a central corridor featuring the gold Mycenaean treasure as the main entrance centerpieces, promoting the ‘treasure hunting models’ of a now largely dated archaeological practice and focusing on a person: the work of a male archaeologist of the previous century, Heinrich Schliemann.

During our Ancient Itineraries visit to the National Archaeological Museum the teams concentrated on working in 4 separate hubs: Objects, People, Styles,and Ideas choosing an artefact each to discuss data and metadata that could relate to a digital iteration and description of art history objects. Rethinking of a National Museum exhibition of Greek Culture in 2019 was inevitable. In this blog we have chosen for the sake of economy to focus on 1) the paper label of a vase figurine that most certainly does not correspond to how we think of societal categories in the 21st century and 2) a special temporary exhibition on countless beauty where beauty is defined in extremely binary and gendered terms.

The first item was an Attic Plastic vase in the shape of figurines from the end of the 6th century BCE. The label describes in detail the composition of the vase/figurines and eventually uses the term ‘N*gro’ to describe the top right and left artefacts, a pejorative and offensive term that is most certainly a carelessly left remnant of the museum’s older days, as it relates to a colonial concept of a world that was founded on slave economies.


The part of the special exhibition that was dedicated to beauty featured a rather binary collection of female and male nudes, as well as hinting toward the classical concept of beauty as an platonic ideal of form, a Phideian harmony: a methodology that was reminiscent of 19thcentury ‘western’ neo-classicism, largely disregarding hermaphrodite statues, a concept utilised, for example, in the recent Acropolis Museum exhibition on Ancient Emotions that was curated a by professor Angelos Chaniotis (Princeton University).

Overall, and while the NAM and the Acropolis museum are focusing on the Greek ‘classics’, largely disregarding concepts of diversity and post-colonial imperatives, a holistic representation of art history objects could move beyond any romanticized and antiquarian concepts of Greekness and connect the audiences to what scholarship in Greek culture has developed to be in 2019.

The teams further discussed that a possible solution to the neo-classical antiquarian museum is to consider an organisation of artefacts as event based, to facilitate knowledge production on Greek national identities and their shaping over the centuries.

Last, but not least, we concluded that while the concept of a national museum is still very central for government funded organisations, national museums in ought to facilitate open access to diverse audience and ideas, nonetheless for the sake of making historical collections matter for contemporary visitors.

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