13 April 2012

Must Read: How Europe Hawks its Monuments

In the midst of its worst crisis in generations, Greece is trying to make more money from heritage, stirring up a hornets' nest of protest. But is commercializing heritage really something new? Dieter Baretzko in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung puts it in context (h/t Elginism).
Greece pimps its ancient monuments to bring in the tourists, lovers of cultural heritage are up in arms. But the country is only doing openly what the whole of Europe is: looting historic sites to drum up more ready cash. 
Disparaging comments went to press practically before the Greek government spokesman had even reached the end of his declaration that the country’s ancient monuments would be used in future for commercial purposes. The Acropolis is thus to become a stage for advertisements and action movies; the Athens’ Agora, birthplace of parliamentary democracy, a playground for fashion shows and 007 stunts; and the Kerameikos, the nearly three-thousand-year-old cemetery, will become the backdrop for commercials featured perfumed sex maniacs touching themselves in their sleep. That’s more or less the future for Greece’s ancient cultural heritage in the looming shadow of the European financial crisis, as cultural pessimists paint it.
One could believe that almost overnight the impending bankruptcy of Greece has turned the country from the cradle of European culture and democracy into a whore ready for anything. But Greece’s negligence towards its ancient world heritage is not a new phenomenon. During the preparations for the Olympic Games in 2004 famous ancient sites such as Marathon were crudely worked up into competition venues and prettified with questionable reproductions of vanished monuments from antiquity. Even the decades-long reconstruction of the Parthenon, which not only wishes to rebuild damaged parts but also missing ones as well, has been grounded as deeply in tourism’s taste for pristine intact sites as in a taste archaeological knowledge. 
If one were to look for an event that may have sparked this, then the discovery of the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia in 1977 – in Vergina (Aigai in antiquity) in northern Greece – might spring to mind. It was a sensational discovery: the very tomb of the father of Alexander the Great, with untold wealth in gold and silver treasure, and the ashes of the ruler wrapped in a gold-embroidered purple cloth. 
Delphi and the Palace of Knossos – open-air studios
Everyone involved grasped that tourists woul queue all night to see the exhibit and got busy straight away preparing a spectacular exhibition. Inquiries to specialists in antique fabrics, however, revealed that unfolding and preserving the purple fabric would take years. One restorer, though, spoke of months – on condition that only one part of the cloth would be saved. The offer was accepted, and the exhibit opened on schedule in Thessaloniki. Record crowds streamed through. 
Decades of neglect had prepared the terrain for this opening of the floodgates. The Greek parliament now intends that Delphi and the Palace of Knossos on Crete be rented out as open-air studios, for good money – and not at intervals of four years, like the Olympics, but as often as possible. 
Is that really any reason, though, to point an accusing finger at Greece? Was anyone offended in 2010 when Italy’s cultural authorities allowed Pompeii’s ancient theatre to be crammed with new seats and clunky containers for stage technicians and sanitary needs to allow lucrative concerts to be held there again – concerts that had been banned in 1976 after audiences caused immense damage? Does anyone still recall the recent scandal that shocked Rome when stones tumbled down off the Coliseum, which has been trampled across for decades by the tourist trade? 
“Dracula’s Wedding – a delicious dinner show with bite”
The laws of the free market have applied to monuments too, for a long time now. All European countries have polished up their historic sites to bring in money. From Vienna’s Museum Quarter, which since 1998 has seen the Baroque court stables converted into the “eighth largest cultural area in the world” thanks to an eccentric new museum, to Germany’s tiny town of Xanten whose ancient Roman core has been enlarged into an open-air museum where waiters in antique costume serve visitors ancient cuisine in reconstructed baths and taverns, ancient sites across Europe are turning into “location factors” that open up new sources of revenue for economically ailing communities.
Germany, formerly resistant to the crisis, is no exception. Take Dresden, which likes to boast of itself as the crown of the Baroque era. There, in 2010, after an endless and futile search for investors, the ravishingly beautiful Kurlander Palace, bombed out in February 1945, was rebuilt. Not as a museum, concert hall or other place of culture, but as an “event location”. One could, so the operators promise on the internet, “rediscover a fairy-tale palace brought back to life,” including its “magic, which is still pervasive.” The main attraction in the former ballroom of the Kurlander Palace is described as “Dracula’s Wedding – a delicious dinner show with bite.” 
What is the difference here with the culture-peddlers in Greece? In the shadow of the euro crisis, everywhere greed and lack of money are going hand in hand. In Athens, with their backs to the wall, the Greeks are just doing publicly what others have been practicing under the cover of relative stability. The victims are always the monuments – and lovers of culture too, who in place of historical sites are more and more frequently being offered “event locations”. At a good price, of course. 
Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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