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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Melina Mercouri Day in Athens

The last time I was in Athens was October 2009 and then I visited the Acropolis Museum twice, before and after a few days in Delphi, one of my favourite places in Greece. It had only opened 5 months earlier and I’d been desperate to visit; my first IVF had bruisingly got in the way. My main memory from that time was the sense of the everyday lives of ancient men, women and children through the tangible remains displayed on both sides of the ramp leading to the sculpture galleries. These items ranged from baby drinking bottles to ornate vases and had been excavated underneath the building. I remember re-appreciating the kore / korai (male / female) cult sculptures, which were jewel lit as opposed to being almost lost in the dingy small museum they had been housed in before. Then being spell bound by the wonder of seeing the scant fragments of the Parthenon sculptures against the backdrop of the actual monuments. And all surrounded by the light, that blue bright Athenian light.

When I visited today it was, by happy coincidence, Melina Mercouri Day (6 March) on which sites and state run museums are free in honour of the former actress, Minster of Culture, activist, UNESCO advocate and passionate campaigner for access to culture. I had only encountered her work after she had died in 1994. During my MA dissertation had mainly considered it in the context of the British Museum and Parthenon Sculptures, rather than her fuller expression of cultural freedom and creativity for all, including those in the global majority / south with which she aligned herself and Greece.

Anyway, I wondered if I would find the Acropolis Museum in some way dated now. Yes, the architecture belongs to the 2000s but it is enough of a statement for that not to matter and there is an elision between Athens = all of Greece in the interpretation . . . The museum was full of school children, Greeks and tourists, much as it was in 2009. This time, though, I noticed the use of old prints from travellers in the interpretation - notably Spon and Wheler who recorded the Parthenon in the 1670s before it was blown up by the Venetians, then Stuart and Revett (and Par) in their Antiquities of Athens in the 1750s, though mostly published from 1787 to 1816. they brought home to me how important those accounts and depictions are in not just recording what was there but their role is signalling what could be taken, even if it was meant to be casts. (Yes, I am looking at the bust of Thomas Harrison in the Portico Library).

I also made use of the Reading Room for some spontaneous writing and research and noted the ‘kids’ room with a Lego Acropolis, which wowed my children when I showed them online later. (Despite them telling me they were glad they were not with me cos I’d take them to boring things, they decided that the Lego copy was cool.) The theme of restitution and desire to unify the sculptures was proclaimed outside in a billboard about the recent return of a fragment from Sicily to the a family trail on The Parthenon Sculptures. 6 Stories of Seperation.

There was also a book for children (aged 8-11) Nights without Carrie, by Niki Dollis and illustrations by Eleni Oeconomopoulou, referring to the lost Caryatid that was taken by Lord Elgin and is now in the British Museum where she is ‘also loved’. In essence, this was an updating of the story told that the maidens on the erectheion wept for their lost sister every night when she was replaced by bricks and stolen by the British. (Still looking at you, bust of Thomas Harrison).

The Caryatid is just outside the Duveen Gallery not the Great Court in the British Museum but you get the picture. The main difference with my last visit was being able to visit the excavations under the museum, which gave a sense of the layer upon layer of different pasts in Athens and the Acropolis, which the museum and the site do not. The excavations are of mainly 7thC CE housing but one house had been lived in since 5thC BCE so had over 1200 years of domestic use: it had lived through the zenith of 5th century Athens and it’s empire, conquest by Macedonia, then the Romans, Neoplatonism, another invasion and Byzantine Christianity.

After visiting many more sites and catching up with family, I went to the Melina cafe / bar for a glass of wine and to work on an a *thing* on empathy, working with museum archives / objects and restitution (hopefully to be published Jan 2024). I’d seen the images in the cafe many times before as used to go regularly. What I hadn’t noticed was the books and made a beeline for the 1995 UNESCO published I‘m Counting on Hope, which is mainly an account of Melina‘s speeches to UNESCO and lots of images of her. I was struck by part of one in which she espoused a universal Hellenism based on Athenian democracy and architectural orders ‘Doric, Ionic, and corinthian, whose unchanged forms, she recognised with pleasure in the public buildings of America, Asia and Africa.’ But what, I thought, if those orders had been built due to ideologies around racism, colonialism, enslavement, gendered hierarchies and class conflict rather than the community and social unity that Melina hoped for? How do you deal or cope with those legacies? . . . I don’t know the answers. Or rather that there are many and perhaps none. Melina, thanks for helping me think, even if I’m more confused now!


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