Canonized in the mind of archaeologists and the Greek people at large, antiquities have become, even in recent years, the recipients of quasi-religious veneration that might embarrass an otherwise typically Western, secular state (even one, like Greece, marked by some decidedly un-Western, and rather disconcerting, peculiarities):
Greek authorities have recently introduced a ban on posing for pictures in front of ancient monuments in museums and archaeological sites ‘as a show of veneration’ to them, usually enforced by enraged stewards against flabbergasted (and otherwise most welcome) tourists seeking, in universal tourist etiquette nowadays (obnoxious as it may be), to immortalize themselves in front of a classical statue or a ruin. On many an occasion from the early years of the Greek state, archaeologists working for the Ministry of Culture, the University, or both, were allowed to intervene in situations involving contemporary culture – from events taking place in or near archaeological sites to displays of modern or non-Greek art – and have the last say in the matter. Using the powers of persuasion they draw from a portentous past which they profess to represent, as well as the disciplinary powers invested in them by the state, Greek archaeologists continue to produce and recycle aesthetic value for the sake of the nation.
Theirs was the ‘archaeologically correct’ imagery paraded in the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics. Theirs is the heterotopic landscape, duly ‘cleansed’ and appropriately ‘archaeological’, crafted across Greece through doctrine, intervention and censorship.
A recent clash, rendering the Acropolis once again a site of conflict, should suffice to show the way Greek archaeology – state or public – views its own and the country’s relationship to the classical past. The decision taken by the Central Archaeological Council to approve the de-classification of two previously listed buildings in the vicinity of the new Acropolis Museum in central Athens has stirred a wave of public controversy.
The two buildings, one a rare example of the way modern Greek architecture adopted the achievements of art-deco architecture and the other a Neoclassical building with strong overtones of the Gothic Revival, are part of an urban street preserving valuable examples of private houses of the early twentieth century. The decision to tear down the two buildings rested on the ‘needs’ of the new museum for an uninterrupted view of the Acropolis, in order to establish a ‘visual conversation’ with the monument. A massive building of (questionable by some) international architectural merit, the new museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, is intended to enhance Greece’s international standing as a host of modern architecture as well as its prospects of seeing the eventual return of the Elgin marbles – a national project indeed.
The inherent visualism of Greek archaeology, deeply embedded in its empiricist tradition, a tendency that has been elevated to the status of the discipline’s primary tool of conviction, cultivates a cultural bias towards the visual (‘what you see is what you get’), an attitude that is fundamentally ideological. In the case of the Acropolis museum, the modern has to be given uninterrupted visual access to the ancient, a co-existence that has to be self-evident and eternally present. No intermediaries can be allowed, no interruptions, especially if they are not part of the linear succession from antiquity to the present; most especially if they are unwelcome reminders of foreign interventions unworthy of our merit, as in the case of the Frankish Tower on the Acropolis or the art-deco house classified as a listed building in the seventies by the same authorities which now want to demolish it. Archaeology is thus used to deploy an improvised visual rhetoric, satisfying its public’s (as well as its own) idolatrous tendencies in order to shift the discourse regarding the past towards the pictorial and the aesthetic. Besides being a filial duty towards an imposing past, this heterotopic approach to the development of urban landscapes in modern Greece has been understood by Greeks as a way of meeting outsiders’ expectations of them and a way of achieving international acceptance and financial benefits.
In one of the countless texts urging the state to get rid of the two ‘unimportant’ listed buildings for the sake of the ‘common good’ written by various ‘public intellectuals’ catering primarily for the press, we read that ‘no [foreign] visitor will come to Athens in order to see an art-deco facade, though many will come for the Acropolis Museum, provided we promote it appropriately’.
Several decades on, the best part of a century, Greek archaeology – in the wider sense of the term – struggles to illustrate the nation’s importance through visual reminders of its antiquity, while at the same time striving to satisfy the needs of its visitors in return for their material or moral support. True enough, the fate of the two houses was apparently sealed when it was realized that, although the Parthenon would be clearly visible from the new museum’s galleries (one of which is to remain empty until such time as the Elgin marbles are returned to Greece), the backs of the two buildings obstruct the view to the ‘mother rock’ from the landing which is to become the museum’s cafeteria. Though never explicitly stated in official documentation, this is generally understood both in Greece and abroad as the central issue of the debate (cf. The Observer, 29 July 2007). See, for example, the heated discussion at a web-based chat group of Greek photographers: The majority of participating ‘Neo-Hellenes’ claim that the two condemned buildings are not ‘ancient enough’ or even ‘artistic’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘suitably Hellenic’ to stand in the way of the Parthenon, thus subconsciously (though quite explicitly) pushing for a ‘cleansed’, historically sterilized and all-Greek Athenian landscape.
We certainly need to reconsider the central premise of this enterprise of remodelling Hellas, a ‘passion play’ as it has been called, where what is at stake is Greece’s capacity for self-determination and – more importantly – just who, within the state itself, has the right to set the rules of this process. Needless to say, although this endeavour, one that has led to violent and as yet unresolved conflict in Greek society, affects Greece’s outlook on the future, it is primarily concerned with its definitive reading of the past.