MORE THAN 30m tourists visited Greece last year, but less than 0.001% of them made their way to the small archaeological museum on the island of Salamis (pictured). That is a shame, for there are not many places where you can take in the entire pageant of Greek history in a few small rooms. It is a collection of astonishing items, lovingly displayed, which were all unearthed within a few miles of the museum.
Euripides, one of the fathers of drama, used to escape from the hurly-burly of Athens in a cave on the south of the island and the museum features part of a cup bearing his name. It dates from Euripides’s own time—the fifth century BC—but the inscription was made a few centuries later, perhaps by an admirer who used this old object to make a posthumous offering to the playwright as though he were a god. Also on display is a marble statuette which depicts a schematic version of the female body, possibly 7,000 years old, and a conical flask, used in religious ceremonies in the 13th century BC, adorned with geometric patterns. There is a vase depicting a drinking party of the kind Socrates frequented (so Plato says) before being executed in 399BC.
The artefacts in the Archaeological Museum of Salamis have been looked after by Evi Mikromastora, a local archaeologist, for a decade or so. In 2019 the museum had 4,000 Greek visitors but fewer than 100 non-Greek patrons. “Unfortunately few people know about our museum,” Ms Mikromastora says, praising the efforts of those “serious-minded visitors…who have done their research and do find their way here.” As the Greek tourist industry reopens after a severe (and fairly effective) lockdown, a trip to one of the country’s lesser-known local museums is a worthwhile endeavour.
It has more than 100 such archaeological institutions: apart from the famous ones in Athens, Delphi and ancient Olympia, the great majority are familiar only to a rarefied caste of history buffs. How many people know that the tiny town of Aiani in northern Greece boasts finds from ancient Macedonia, that the island of Thasos has a unique kouros (statue of a young man) or that the island of Nisyros is the place to learn about volcanology? Cycladic art, in the form of weirdly modern-looking female figurines that first emerged 5,000 years ago, draws aficionados to a niche museum in Athens, but few are aware of the impressive collections on islands such as Syros and Naxos.
In Greece’s bureaucratic system, such museums are closely integrated into the archaeological service, a proud, powerful agency under the aegis of the culture ministry. That has pros and cons. It means that small museums are protected from the risk of closure, even in times of austerity. In the eyes of the state, they serve as tools of public education, for Greece’s schoolchildren in particular, as well as magnets for tourists.
But those same bureaucratic rules make it hard for state-owned archaeological museums to accept help from the private sector to, say, upgrade information or improve cafés and toilets. In some places, those modernisations are badly needed. If ministry mandarins are looking for ways to marry private and public funding, they will probably find it easier to do in small art museums, such as the Impressionist art in the Teriade Museum on the island of Mytilene: an already fine display where improvements are in prospect. The ancient past is considered sacrosanct, and therefore harder to tamper with in imaginative ways.
Another quirk of the system is that it invests power in “ephors” who are responsible for the investigation, conservation and display of antiquities, from prehistory to Ottoman times, in a given geographical area. If the ephor is broad-minded and dynamic, spectacular things happen. But if the ephor’s interests happen to focus on one particular era, say Byzantine history, then the display of artefacts from other periods risks being neglected.
Paul Cartledge, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, thinks upgraded local museums could help a cause close to his heart: counter-balancing the Athens-centric view of Greek history. As a keen debater on the merits of Sparta over Athens, and the author of a new book on Thebes, he reckons the Hellenic past has been distorted by Athenian prejudice.
Thebes, now an unlovely conurbation north of Athens, rectified the balance by opening a spectacular museum in 2016, with murals from the Mycenaean age, marble sculptures from the classical era, mosaics from Roman times and Christian frescoes. It reminds visitors that at several moments—particularly the mid-fourth century BC and the medieval era of Frankish rule—Thebes outshone Athens.
But Sparta, to the professor’s chagrin, has lagged behind. Its archaeological museum, opened in the mid-19th century, is among the oldest in Greece, but is now too small to display more recent discoveries, including those from a Mycenaean palace, a possible birthplace of princess Helen whose abduction triggered the Trojan war. Plans have been made for a new Spartan museum, but they have never materialised.
In the meantime, Greek authorities should tell the world more about the remarkable local collections that exist already. A small museum can offer a deep, narrow segment of a historical process that unfolds over aeons, in response to geographical constraints that never change. Salamis, for example, has always been affected by events and cultural trends in Athens yet distinct from the great city. Native islanders have often had mixed feelings about Athenians, be they refugees from the Persian invasion of 480BC or modern weekenders who are careless with rubbish. A handful of revealing objects is a perfect way to tell that story.