Museums of Oblivion
Hamilakis, Yannis, Antiquity
The relationship between antiquity, archaeology and national imagination in Greece, the sacralisation of the Classical past, and the recasting of the Western Hellenism into an indigenous Hellenism have been extensively studied in the last 15 years or so (see e.g. Hamilakis 2007, 2009). In fact, Greece has proved a rich source of insights for other cases of nation-state heritage politics. The new Acropolis Museum project was bound to be shaped by the poetics of nationhood right from the start, given that its prime referent is the most sacred object of the Hellenic national imagination, the Acropolis of Athens. This site is at the same time, however, an object of veneration within the Western imagination (you only have to look at the UNESCO logo), a pilgrimage destination for millions of global tourists, with all its revenue implications, and an endlessly reproduced and modified global icon (in both senses of the word).
There is not one but many Acropoleis, on the hill in central Athens, in museums all over the world, in literature, art and cinema, in photography, and on the internet (cf. the photo-blog, www.theotheracropolis.com). There is not one but many stories that this materiality tells, and many claims and causes that this object and icon has lent itself to, some official and top-down, several unofficial, bottom-up, clandestine and intentionally provocative and controversial. And while I concur with many of the valid and interesting points that Plantzos raises in his article, I contend that the exhibition logic of the new museum, its architectural and museographic bodily affordances, cannot be understood in isolation, cannot be critiqued and deconstructed effectively, if not linked with contemporary global museum claims to the material past, and if all the other voices, interventions and provocations, beyond the official, are not taken into account.
The new museum, before it was even built, from the moment when it was simply a vision in Melina Mercouri's head, and later, a text for an international architectural competition, was linked to the cause for the restitution of the Parthenon marbles (cf. Lending 2009). The outcome, at least in its present configuration, is certainly a missed opportunity to evoke, through materiality, the multi-faceted biography of the Acropolis from the Neolithic to the present, including the history of the multiple contemporary claims and counterclaims over the site. It is a missed opportunity to display, for example, that evocative and wonderfully multi-temporal architectural fragment from the Classical Erechtheion with its 1805 Ottoman inscription in Arabic, a piece that speaks in different tongues, and across ethnic, religious and national boundaries, a living monument to a contemporary multi-cultural and multi-ethnic European capital such as Athens (Figure 1). At present, the few pre- and post-Classical remnants in the museum are drowned in the sea of Classical glory, and almost disappear under the weight of Western Classicist ideals. They are victims perhaps of the misguided belief on the part of the archaeologists in charge, that it is this Classical glory that should be projected as a primary national 'weapon' in the global negotiations of power ('To do otherwise', the director of the museum told a journalist in 2007, 'would have approached the highest level of castration'--Eleftherotypia, 2 September 2007). I would further suggest, however, that what Plantzos identifies, rightly, as the lack of archaeological context in the exhibition is also to do with the sacralisation of Classical objects (relics and sacred icons do not need captions, after all), but also with the perception, prevalent in the national imagination, that antiquities (especially anthropomorphic ones), have the status, the autonomy and the agency of persons, and they can thus 'speak for themselves'; they do not need the archaeologist and the museum curator to speak for them (cf. Hamilakis 2007).
This museum will need to be understood primarily as a material intervention within the politics of vision. …