Sunday, August 22, 2010

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?

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