National museums in Greece: History; Ideology; Narratives

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


Greek national identity has been moulded on a threefold historical scheme that was initially sketched in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and had been crystallized by the first decades of the twentieth century. This scheme evolved gradually according to changing political and ideological circumstances. The sense of identity was initially based on Greece’s affinity to classical antiquity that was exalted to a revered model. When this affinity was disputed; the - previously discarded - Byzantine heritage was reassessed and accepted as an integral part of national heritage while aspects of folk life started being studied in order to provide evidence of the unbroken continuity of the nation down the centuries. Thus; by the end of the nineteenth century Greeks could pride themselves for being the heirs of a famous classical heritage; an important Byzantine legacy; and of a living folk tradition some aspects of which - it was believed - might be traced back to antiquity. This ideological process had been consolidated by the 1920s and has since served as the backbone of national master narratives.

National museums such as the National Archaeological Museum (henceforth NAM); the Byzantine and Christian Museum (henceforth BCM); the Museum of Greek Folk Culture (henceforth MGFA) and the National Historical Museum are entrenched in this scheme; support the master narrative and present the notion of an eternal Hellenic spirit that guides the nation through different historical periods. Thus; Greek national museums perpetuate national myths and make official collective memory visible. As large proportions of collective memory is supposedly embodied in emblematic objects of national significance; the public is expecting national museums to act as treasure-houses of national memory; and this is indeed one of the main reasons instructing museum visiting. Moreover; as significant national institutions museums are normally seen as places that tell ’the truth’; whereby ’truth’ represents nationally sanctioned views of the nation’s trajectory. Ruptures; silences; difficult heritage or other voices are hard to be accepted; although significant shifts have been under way for more than a decade now.

This report maps the dynamics of establishing national museums in Greece and provides an overview of the most important national museums in the country through a discussion of selected case studies. For the purpose of this research; which was part of EuNaMus’ Mapping and Framing Institutions 1750-2010 project; a ’national museum’ is defined as an institution owned and controlled by the state; which claims and is recognised as being national and which articulates and negotiates national identity and knowledge with public exhibitions. A national public position and a focus on the national narrative are at the core of the investigation.


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