Greece in Meltdown; Archaeologists in Denial
by Peter Tompa
The Greek financial meltdown has led to further cuts in Greece's already poorly funded cultural establishment, and has contributed to an increase of thefts, including a recent break-in at Olympia.
Here is how the LA Times summarized the problem:
Greece's economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security.
At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection "is not in peril," budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country's biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis. "If robbers are breaking in here," said Vassiliki Paraschi, a bystander peering up at the gallery's assaulted balcony door, "then I can't imagine what is happening to small museums in remote locations."
Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece's cultural inheritance.
Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget.
Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece's fine art and antiquities. "We made drastic cuts in 2010. We hired no one, not even a single archaeologist," said Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Culture Ministry.
"We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn't that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?"
About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending.
"What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?" asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece's landmark monument. In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government's Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks.
With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It's hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves."
About 95% of the names coming in from our informants are newcomers," Kouzilos said. "Not a single one of the arrested had a euro to show for [their troubles].
All were in financial ruins. "In one of the most high-profile cases last year, police arrested a trio of smugglers trying to sell artifacts that included 6th century BC helmets, gold funerary masks and part of an iron sword linked to the dynasty of Alexander the Great. Only one of the gang members had a record in antiquities smuggling; the others were bouncers newly fired from a nightclub in northern Greece.
As the recession deepens, police expect art and antiquities crime to rise, but there is a silver lining. "The more amateurs join in, the easier it is to nab them," Kouzilos said.
Tompa is correct in observing that archaeologists are indeed in denial. They don't seem to comprehend that when push comes to shove, society will not support their ideological agenda of mandatory, publicly funded state custody of all ancient artifacts.
Push has indeed come to shove in Greece, and hard choices now confront the Greek people. One of those choices is continuing support for archaeology. The above account suggests that the Greek government is presently focusing its attention on security issues, and on maintaining security at museums.
So far as it goes, this account seems to indicate that security and law enforcement are now receiving priority at the expense of archaeological work. That would be an appropriate way to deal with this crisis, however it is not yet clear that the authorities have really instituted measures that will be effective in the long run. Time will tell whether these approaches will be successful, or whether they are (as Culture Ministry guards, who presumably should know what they are talking about, allege) merely interim Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages that pose grave security and liability risks.