A forklift truck slowly shifts a tall block of carved marble into place in the lobby of the new Acropolis museum. Electric drills buzz as the base is secured, while a worker sweeps up a scatter of white dust. Antonis Samaras, the culture minister, watches closely as the display takes shape. He hopes the opening this month of the 130 million euro museum at the foot of the Acropolis hill in the center of Athens will spark a revival of interest in Greeces classical heritage.
Weve seen a steady decline in numbers of visitors to museums and archaeological sites the past few years, he says. We have to make them accessible, lively places that people want to come to, not just once but often. The number of visitors to Greeces 200 state museums fell 27 per cent last year to 1.9m, according to the state statistics office. This compares with an average of more than 3m annually in the mid-1990s.
Mr Samaras first move has been to set the entry price to the new Acropolis museum at 1 euro – the same as a city bus ticket – for the rest of this year, rising to 5 euros in 2010. Our policy will be to keep prices significantly lower than at comparable museums abroad, he says, citing entry prices of 9 euros and 15 euros respectively for the Louvre in the Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Dimitris Pandermanlis, a senior archaeologist and president of the state organization responsible for the construction of the new museum, says the arrangement and labeling of sculptures, from the frieze of the Parthenon temple to the dozens of free-standing pieces in the classical gallery, is designed so that people can wander around, stop and look, feel theyre engaging directly with the antiquities.
Creating a contemporary feel
A bookshop, gallery for temporary exhibitions, a restaurant and cafe and an auditorium for lectures and conferences will all help create a contemporary atmosphere, Prof Pandermanlis says.
Mr Samaras says the success of films such as Troy and 300, which made extensive use of digital special effects, proves the ancient Greeks still have a universal appeal, even though the study of classical languages is no longer widespread, even in Greece. Digital technology has a big role to play in explaining not just the ancient world but modern Greek history. Wed like to have visitor centers at the main sites that would use virtual reality to recreate scenes from daily life as well as the big battles, he says.
The state archaeological service has already absorbed more than 200 million euros from European Union structural packages, covering more than 350 projects to restore monuments and renovate regional museums. The guiding principle was to make more of Greeces cultural heritage accessible to a generation that has leisure to enjoy it, says an archaeological service official. The current EU structural package provides 950 million euros of funding for the next five years, of which 100 million euros will cover digital displays, Mr Samaras says.
This summer Greeces 65 most important ancient sites will be open continuously from 8am to 8pm, following the hiring of additional site guards in spite of the recession. Its a quite different experience when you tour a site in cool morning temperatures, or watch the sun setting behind the columns of a temple, Mr Samaras says.
However, educational programs for young visitors are key to ensuring that Greek museums continue to flourish, says Nikos Stampolidis, director of the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic art in Athens, a private institution. Visitor numbers at the Cycladic museum have remained steady at around 60,000 a year, thanks to an extensive schools program run by museum staff, and regular temporary exhibitions of western European art and antiquities, he says.
Prof Stampolidis recently launched an innovative gallery with scenes from the life of an Athenian born in the 5th century BC in a seaside deme (district) south of the city. Its a challenge to evoke the feeling of antiquity without falling over into kitsch, he says.
The display, which is focused on artefacts used in childhood, sports activities, household life, warfare and death, includes theatrical lighting and background music. Two accompanying films illustrate the heros marriage ceremony and his funeral.