Sunday, August 22, 2010

Archaeological Museum of Thera

An old school museum like the Archaeological Museum of Naxos last year. Well. This museum makes the Museum of Prehistoric Thera look like the very peak of museological perfection. The museum is in every way "old-school".

It is made up of wooden cases with dirty glass and one label per 30 exhibits or so, beyond the label saying 7th Century cemetery of Ancient Thera. There's not much to say museologically. The cases need renewing, the building has problems with water entering and causing walls to pop and the iron inside the concrete to crack in certain places (and this on an island which is traditionally considered dry).

General view of the main room with the old wooden cases and the kouros statues facing away. However brilliant this was in the sixties, it does not really cut today. Spot the bits of plaster / paint peeling off towards the top right of the photo...

The exhibition itself contains a pretty interesting batch of finds from all the periods usually covered. There are some very nice Attic ceramics, some daedalic figurines from graveyards and the sanctuary of Aphrodite and some good kouros statues. There is plenty of potential for this museum to be spruced up nicely, but at the moment it remains a type-case example of the crap old-school approach to museums as warehouses of stored antiquities.

One of the old Daedalic statuettes - from the sanctuary of Aphrodite and possibly mimicking a form more suited to a wooden xoanon.

And out of all the chaos and all the complaints, you come across a gem like this attic black-figure krater (mixing bowl) and everything else kind-of fades into insignificance. This piece alone (the photo does not do it justice) is worth the walk up to the museum past all the shops selling kitsch kak to tourists with perfect teeth and deep pockets.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Bad present conditions or bad restoration at some unknown point in the past? An old prehistoric pot is slowly crumbling into dust in its display case.

No self-respecting art lover holds the Roman era in much esteem. It is, however, a little extreme to put the Roman period statuary quite literally in the museum's broom cupboard...

Museum of Prehistoric Thera (Thira, whatever)

This museum was to have been the highlight of the trip. I had not been to Santorini since 1997 and the museum was still under construction then. The museum was to house the finds from the excavation of Akrotiri, the bronze-age Pompeii of the Aegean. The museum opened in 2000, so the chances of there having been a good museological approach employed were good. I had high hopes that I would come out of this museum knowing more about Akrotiri than I knew when going in. I consider myself a decently-read amateur so, it is not too much to expect that there would be something to learn from the combined wit and expertise of the Marinatoses and Dumases involved in the excavation and the museum itself.

Big disappointment.

The museum is little better than a store room with occasional explanatory texts. All the faults of the New Acropolis Museum are here (poor explanatory texts, lack of child-friendly texts, etc.), compounded by the exotic, unfamiliar and to a certain degree inaccessible nature of the material.

The exhibition is laid out chronologically with some further separation into categories with which I am not all that satisfied (to show for example, the cosmopolitan nature of the settlement, or the contacts with elsewhere).

I have nothing against contacts with elsewhere - my complaints stem from the bad labeling - put a map on the wall! What does it mean to the average visitor that these vases are from the Argolid, Corinthia or Aegina? Without a map, nothing; without an explanation of the travel routes and times necessary to get to Akrotiri, next to nothing. Again - we are shown lead weights in the trade section: how much did each one weigh? Was it a decimal system or something else? Are there parallels on Crete or on the mainland? In later weights? It's like being served a pistaccio nut and not being told that it needs to be shelled, then eaten!

Then again - what is Linear A? We are presented with a whole case of finds, inscribed with it and yet there is no attempt to help the visitor comprehend the significance of the script or the texts.

Frescoes - undoubtedly what most people go for what with the Minoan flounced skirts exposing breasts left right and center... I found the frescoes disappointing. Apart from the "African" and other fragments, there is nothing here that was not already on display in Athens before the earthquake of 1999. And yet, there have been so many discoveries, and so much is left in Athens (without good reason in my opinion). It is an injustice to keep the Ibexes, the fishermen and boxing boys in Athens when such a museum exists. It's not as if the labeling in Athens is much better. Even so - there is no text discussing the rituals depicted, the dress of the figures, the importance of crocus. The public do want to know. They come to the museum to learn and there is a real need (which is not being met) to explain things. Despite seeing many, I do not recall one explanation of what a rhyton is, or more significantly, how it was used in ritual. And all this from an exhibition designed and opened in the last ten years!

Museology #fail!

I did like the descriptive text about the frescoes and how they were painted, although diagrams or even photographs of pertinent parts of the frescoes showing such things as string impressions on the plaster or the way that true fresco differs from the dry fresco work (both were employed and presumably left different tell-tale signs). These are more missed opportunities to get people interested.

This museum was a great opportunity, sorely missed and it leaves you with a feeling of despair as you realize that we will always be two steps behind the museums of Europe (the real Europe, the one with industry, the one with proper state-sponsored education).

I have a bad feeling I'll be writing this about every new museum I will be visiting...

Ostrich-egg Rhyta showing contacts with the Levantine coast, but without any explanation of the form or function of a Rhyton...

Lion's-heda Rhyton again without any explanation of the form or function of a Rhyton... This piece used to be in Athens and is modelled on a metallic original (the angular eyebrows mimic the shape that a metal lion's head rhyton would take - there's one in the Mycenae room at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). Of course, you won't learn any of this by reading the labels in the exhibition...

Saffron Gatherers... like the spinal tap song goes: "nobody knows what they were doing, but their legacy remains". It's not surprising that nobody knows, since there is no text written next to them to tell anyone.

Linear-A fragments. See text above for my complaints (or better still, don't - for that full "Greek museum ignorance experience").

Lead weights. See text above for my complaints (or better still, don't - for that full "Greek museum ignorance experience").

Oh, did someone mention a gold Ibex?

Museum of Natural History - Heraklion

Next stop was the museum of Natural History of Heraklion:

I hear a great deal about this. It's because of caving circles that I actually know about the existence of the museum. Friends work at the museum, and conduct research in its name.

I was not too sure what to expect from this natural history museum - I have not really been to one since childhood. The end result was a slight disappointment, brought about essentially by higher expectations than is proper. Perhaps I need to sit and think about what a natural history museum is for. The fact that this one is attached to the MiniEdu rather than the MiniCult may be a bit of a hint, but the whole "what is a museum for?" discussion can wait for another day.

The Heraklion Natural History Museum is divided into 4-5 sections: the dioramas make up the bulk of two floors, the temporary exhibition (currently housing the Antikythera mechanism exhibition), the living gallery with live animals, the earthquake simulator and an external space for traveling exhibitions (currently housing a medicinal plants from across Europe exhibit). The museum costs €6 and has a pretty good bookshop (even though it does not accept credit cards!).

So: Dioramas: The museum has set up dioramas of stuffed animals and vegetation from a number of habitats (mountain, plain, lowland) from a range of places such as the Balkans, Cyprus, Libya and Crete itself, in an attempt to show how the flora and fauna changes from zone to zone and from place to place. All well and good. My favorite question remains unanswered, and it is not asked nor even hinted at: why? Why do we have goat-like animals as the main herbivores and birds of prey and whatnot in each of these dioramas, but in each one they are slightly different? Why is it different eagles and different goats in each one?

The opportunity to discuss foodwebs and (in this, the year of biodiversity and Darwin's 200 years) Evolution has been missed. So, yes, one disappointment there.

The live animal zone was interesting enough although my eco-instinct kicks in and I get all anti-zoo whenever I see animals kept in small boxes. It's hard to balance the benefits of seeing a live viper (οχιά) against the ethics of having seen one in a small box dressed to look like the natural environment. This is most disturbing in the terrapin tank where all the little guys are falling over eachother, literally, in their attempt to get to the best spot under the lamp illuminating their exhibit, which, presumably is also a welcome heat source for the cold blooded anapsids.

Finally, on to the earthquake simulator: The simulator is very popular with the locals. It has been on local TV and subsequently on youtube and the lady giving out the tickets as you enter will suggest that you don't miss it and tells you the time of the next performance. I have been on the simulator at the British Museum of Natural History (Science) as a child and I have felt "the big one" of San Francisco (1906), so I was thinking, like, what's the point? I skipped the simulator.

I regretted this the moment I heard and saw the kids in the simulator screaming (with terror or with glee, I know not) as they were rocked to the rhythm of the Kobe earthquake of 6.9 Richter (1992). wow. So, perhaps worth not missing after all.

In all, the museum is great for the city, albeit a little overpriced, especially to someone used to getting into MiniCult museums for free. I am probably wrong in mentally comparing it with London or even the Goulandris in Athens. Speaking of which: where are the insects, the butterflies and the invertebrate endemics of Crete? Kids love to look at the creepy crawlies and Crete has plenty. I will assume that the curators have this in mind.

To summarise, a good museum for Heraklion which can with time and effort become a great museum for Greece.

The Natural History Museum of Heraklion - already a happy gem for the island of Crete, potentially a gem for all Greece.

Left: a view over the dioramas which take up two floors of the museum. Right: An inhabitant of the live gallery, a Viper - Οχιά. Ethics of keeping live animals aside, an opportunity to get to know one of the poisonous snakes of Greece, close up!

Left, a Cypriot mountain goat (as per the country's Euro coinage), center a Cretan wildcat and right Bonelli's eagle, all from the various dioramas on show.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Four museums in two days

The weekend of the assumption, I had the joy to visit four museums in two days, in two different coastal towns of the Aegean. Two museums in Heraklion and two in Fira on Thera (Santorini). There would have been more in Heraklion had I been slightly more forward looking but there it is. Of the four, two are first time visits, two are repeat visits. I repeat here the notes I made within hours of the visits, with small embellishments.

Archaeological Museum of Heraklion - temporary exhibition
Natural History Museum of Heraklion
Museum of Prehistoric Thera
Archaeological Museum of Thera

Archaeological Museum of Heraklion - temporary exhibition

The museum houses all the finds from excavations not housed in local museums on the island of Crete. It is undergoing a long restoration and reorganization. My last visit was in 2000 during my large Cretan road-trip. Crete is best known in archaeological circles for the prehistoric Minoan civilization which flourished in the late bronze age and has been the subject of much study and theorizing since. The material remains of the Minoan culture forms the bulk of the normal exhibition and also of this temporary exhibition. So:

One hall for 4,000 years of finds is ambitious enough. When that 4,000 years takes us from the NL to Roman times and the subject is Crete, it would be easy enough to see that one hall would be well less than enough. Nevertheless, the curators have managed to cram into this one spare room a veritable treat of Minoan and cretan stuff and I challenge anyone to tell me that their fave piece from the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is not on display. The only thing missing for me was an LM diadem that I am quite fond of - but it is a minor piece that I liked because of the depictions of clothing in the figured scenes. There were also far fewer seals than a sealy person would have liked, but this is to be expected.

So, finds: yes, many and good. All old friends were there. Layout: The layout took a mainly chronological approach through the hall with some thematic display cases covering "external contacts" or "trade". The texts accompanying the exhibition were mainly old-school descriptive labels with a paragraph or two introducing display cases. The layout and lack of space meant that odd pieces became bedfellows in the same cases. For example the Anemospilia boar's head dagger was juxtaposed with the bee pendant from Chrysolakkos. The shortness of space meant that there was no description of the findspot or contextual information about most of the objects sot the visitor will never know about the youth sacrificed with the boar knife in front of the wooden xoanon with the clay feet. I am curious how they will treat these pieces in the final museum, or indeed what they will do with the dodgy reconstruction of the Lilly Prince.

Anyway - in all a good starter-pack of Minoan art, but for me it needed better texts to persuade me that the exhibition which is coming will not be just another same-old same-old storehouse of antiquities with labels.

The bee pendant from Chrysolakkos and the boar's-head dagger from Anemospilia: unlikely bedfellows

Prince of the lilies: wishful victorian thinking or just bad reconstruction?

Where are your lilies, oh man from the siege rhyton? and why is your head facing the wrong way?