Living Greeks and Those Long Dead Ones: Greek Heritage in Times of Crisis. By Despina Margomenou

Island of Lemnos (Greece)

Island of Lemnos (Greece)

Blog post by Despina Margomenou,
Lecturer in the Modern Greek Program of the Department of Classical Studies, Research Associate at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Faculty Associate of the Center for European Studies, University of Michigan.


The New York Times June 11, 2012 report on the dire state of Greek antiquities and heritage protection entitled “Greek Antiquities, Long Fragile, Are Endangered by Austerity” accurate though it is, suffers from really bad timing. That same week, the Greek media announced that cancer patients in the public health care system (the majority of patients) would receive no treatment for sometime due to a shortage in chemotherapy drugs and that many hospitals are forced to cancel operations. Apples and oranges one might say; besides any comparison of the two reports intimates an inclination towards populist rhetoric. Still, it is inevitable not to wonder if in times of bankruptcy and political uncertainty a report about long dead Greeks should outweigh a report about living ones.

It is a sad fact that in the face of bankruptcy, budget cuts begin with cultural public institutions. This should not surprise any Michigan resident. During the past ten years we have all witnessed the impact of a faltering economy on cultural and educational institutions of this state, especially in Detroit. The difference of course is that in the US it is possible (in fact, required) that even public institutions seek outside funding. And of course, there is outside funding to be sought and ways to seek it that are relatively straightforward. This applies to museums, cultural centers, and universities, as well as to archaeological research. Important to note that most of the archaeology in the US, especially rescue archaeology, and historic preservation,  are conducted through CRM (Cultural Resource Management) and are therefore in private hands. Things are completely different in Greece (and other European countries of course, Italy for instance). In Greece, all archaeological research, heritage preservation, and museum work are public and state funded with few and rare exceptions (e.g., privately owned museums). Funding for archaeological research for example, is included in the national budget, derived via the national lottery or from different EU research initiatives, and is funneled through the Ministry of Culture to the regional departments of the Greek Archaeological Service. These regional departments monitor all archaeological research in the area of their jurisdiction: rescue or salvage excavations as well as university projects or projects by foreign schools. They are staffed by permanent state employees, and increasingly, in the past decade or so, by armies of younger archaeologists who are contracted to work for specific projects. Both groups are represented in the NYT article as well as their union the “Association of Greek Archaeologists”.

Archaeological research alongside heritage preservation and museum work are in effect strictly centralized and administered via a hierarchical and complex state bureaucracy that was established almost as soon as the Modern Greek state came into being in 1832, initially as the Kingdom of Greece under the Bavarian King Otto.  The Greek Archaeological Service was instituted in 1834 by the Bavarian Regent (and as such, initially represented German views of Greek heritage), and the Archaeological Society came about in 1837 as an initiative by Greek scholars and intellectuals. Eventually both institutions would pass to Greek hands, but the notion that Modern Greece should be a museum of a singular ancient past perceived (albeit in different ways) as “our” origin by westerners (here: German) and Greeks, is prevalent in the foundation of both institutions.

This is how things more or less worked, or at least should have worked, until now. What happens when there is no funding available to support the basic needs of cultural institutions and the protection of monuments and sites; when archaeologists, museum staff, and guards are fired? The NYT report covers all this accurately, painting a bleak picture for the present and future of Greek heritage.  Still there is nothing about this picture that is different compared to what happens right now in Greek education (most Greek schools and universities are public) or health. Nothing that is, except for an implicit expectation: that contemporary, living Greeks, facing years of unemployment, foreclosures, poverty, health crises without medicine or available health care, and pummeled daily by Greek media predictions of doom (doom sells), should somehow perform their role as custodians, even if “inadequate”, of those other, worthier, Greeks now long dead.


About Natasa Alajbegovic

Manager, Global Projects/International Institute, University of Michigan.
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