In the gloomy after crisis general ambience in Greece, how many of us still take the time to review major achievements of the country's reputation to the International Community? And still, it was only three years ago, on June 20, 2009, the whole world witnessed the opening ceremony of what has been characterized by the New York Times as «one of the highest-profile cultural projects undertaken in Europe in the last decade»: the new Acropolis museum.
The inauguration day and the week of various festivities and parallel events, was the culmination of a long run project, carefully planned and implemented as part of an integrated approach.
The museum visioned to embed Greece’s cultural identity and heritage and become the vehicle for rebranding Greece, enhancing the country's image and its capital worldwide. As it is clearly stated in its statute, claiming the Parthenon marbles was the museum’s chief goal. Such a political position brings the museum to the forefront of Greece’s cultural diplomacy.
In the early 2000's, under the pressure of the coming Olympic Games held in Greece, Evangelos Venizelos -Minister of Culture- stressed on the argument of viewing the sculptures and the building as a whole; a single monument - the Parthenon. A unique argument in the Greek agenda that clearly distinguishes from claims of divided artifacts made by other countries. Melina Merkouri's vision for the return of Parthenon marbles that began in the 80's had found a new "ally". The issue no longer lied on legal ownership. Still, to substantiate it, the construction of a new Acropolis museum was imperative.
After a series of unsuccessful design competitions, lawsuits and delays, architects Bernard Tschumi and Michael Photiadis were assigned to design the new Acropolis museum in collaboration with Dimitrios Pandermalis, the museum’s director. Unlike others, the new museum visualized to work in a holistic and natural context, so that a sense of unity between the artifacts and the natural environment (rock) is achieved.
A building of steel, concrete and glass, an "anti Guggenheim" design, the museum acts as an understatement on its own, allowing the exhibits to shine. Glass plays an 'operative' role. Glass walls of the Parthenon gallery offer the visitor a harmonious blend amongst contemporary Athens and its past. A direct visual connection is established as the frieze and the statues are displayed in front of an immense glass wall looking up at the Parthenon.
Carefully thought, all artifacts can be viewed in a similar spatial proportion to their original location. Furthermore, the use of replicas next to the originals is an outmost original idea and technique, unique in terms of museology standards. Of optimum importance light is used as a theme to add a fourth dimension to the ancient artifacts. Display lighting reveals the color variation of the surviving collection from the missing pieces. One can easily detect the contrast between the whiteness of the copies and the honey colored marbles.
In terms of communications strategy, the effort was dual: putting forward the concept of the monument’s entity and uniqueness but also branding the museum as a cultural product of superb quality. This product entails the masterpieces of classical art and the museum itself, both as a construction and as a location. Besides, the museum’s design and architecture are a component of the communications strategy. The idea is to create a sensation and to stress the uniqueness of the monument as an archeological site per se, inseparable from its surrounding environment and functioning as an entity.
Branding a state-of-the-art museum involved the creation of a new landmark for Athens and Greece. The museum would be the flagship of the nation’s archeological museums. Dimitrios Pandermalis stated: “it is a national project which promotes the classical identity of the Greek Nation and the global importance of classicism for art history and for culture in general.” To engage with its audience, the museum would have to manage how people perceive Greece. After all, perception is reality.
The next level of communications strategy involved the visualization of those perceptions, via symbolisms and connotations. The use of replicas, for instance, next to the original sculptures has explicit connotations to the absence of body parts residing in the British Museum. The visual recreation of the Parthenon frieze fiercely suggests the sculptures' liaison to the monument and enhances the aim of claiming the sculptures.
Furthermore, the notion of a modern Greece that moves alongside its cultural past was visualized through the videos projected at the grand opening ceremony. Created by Athina Tsangari and accompanied by the music of Dimosthenis Gasparatos. The large-scale outdoor projections functioned as powerful and evocative tools of creating symbolisms and encoding emotional messages. Images, along with the music created a narrative. The figures become alive and start their journey to their new home, eager and content at the same time. Antique and contemporary Athens meet and mingle.
In addition, the same connotation of reuniting the Parthenon sculptures in their new home was propagated through the images of the artifacts being transferred from the Acropolis rock to the museum. A different but powerful symbolism was created through the strategic and symbolic role assigned to both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture on the inauguration day: to put back to their place missing parts of the exhibits. A political thesis is acclaimed.
The role of the media in broadcasting and diffusing all of the above mentioned intended messages was of crucial importance. The new Acropolis Museum was a world-scale event since its construction, raising international public awareness and a series of political, legal and aesthetics discussions. Thus, it has helped revive the interest in Greece's classical heritage and grow the movement for the unification of the Parthenon marbles.
The museum has been a huge success; it figures on the top list amongst Greece’s archeological museums in terms of the visitors' numbers. The publicity it attracted has urged the return of at least 25 missing artifacts including fragments of the Parthenon frieze from Italy, Vatican, Germany and Sweden. It is also successfully branded and identified with Greece at a national and international level. Currently the option of the marbles being sent back to Greece on a loan as become a possible solution. Still the British Museum stands firm to its position to retain them. For how long?
* Peggy Kapellou and Maria Kyriakopoulou are specializing on Cultural Diplomacy, at the Universite de Strasbourg, International Relations seminars, offered in Athens via City U.