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Exhibiting Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Material Culture from Ancient Athens and the Democratic Ideal

2,500 Years: Blockbuster Exhibition - The Context

Museum Heritage Debates

Democracy Celebrated and Debated

Two Exhibitions:

The Art Blockbuster: The Greek Miracle.

Archaeology and Text: An Exhibition Celebrating the 2500th Anniversary of Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Critical Conclusions


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Museum Heritage Debates

The timing of the exhibitions on democracy and the anniversary of Kleisthenes' democratic reforms in 508/7 BCE was internationally significant, coming as they did after the end of the Cold War and at a time when Eastern European countries were embracing democratic (and free market capitalist) reforms. The Greek Miracle and The Birth of Democracy also happened at key moment for domestic politics in the United States since 1992 was election year. January 1993 saw the inauguration of a new Democrat President Bill Clinton after three terms of Republican Presidents (Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr). In his first inaugural address on 21 January 1993 Clinton promised ‘American renewal' that would be ‘born in the world's oldest democracy, that brings forth the vision and courage to reinvent America '. Clinton's rhetoric presents America as the oldest continuous democracy capable of reinvention and change as well as leading the world ‘we did so much to make' (Clinton 1993).

It is unlikely that Clinton was unaware of the ‘anniversary' of ancient Greek democracy, its celebration in America or the connections made between American and Athenian democracy (both positive and negative). The election and inauguration taking place at the same time as the anniversary of Kleisthenes' reforms seemed to make it particularly apt that America led the world in democratic celebration. Clearly this did not in practice result in Athenian-orientated refeorms to increase participatory democracy being embraced in America or elsewhere.

Arguably the main impact of The Greek Miracle exhibition, and to a lesser extent The Birth of Democracy exhibition, was in Greece itself through its continued arguments for the restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum, the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2004 and the overhaul of two of its main museums. Interestingly, one of the host institutions for The Greek Miracle, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, had also began a huge refurbishment of its Greek and Roman Art galleries shortly before it hosted the exhibition. This section on the impact of the commemoration of the reforms of Kleisthenes in 1992 to 1994 briefly draws attention to four main areas: the refurbishment of museum institutions, the restitution debate around the Parthenon sculptures, the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 and recent readings of Athenian democracy in America.

Museum Institutions and Refurbishment

Carlos A Picón, the chief curator of the Greek and Roman Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gives a brief history of his department in a new book to commemorate to the full re-opening of the Greek and Roman Galleries in 2007. Picón lists the major exhibitions which the department had hosted in the last two to three decades. Exhibitions at the Metropolitan included Greek Art of the Aegean Islands (November 1979 – February 1980); The Search for Alexander (October 1982 – January 1983) and The Amasis Painter and His World (September to October 1985). Loan exhibitions with museums included The Greek Miracle (March to May 1993), which ‘presented a wealth of sculpture, coming for the most part from institutions in Greece '; Greek Gold: Jewellery of the Classical World (December 1994 to March 1995) and Pergamon: the Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar (January to April 1996) (Picón 2007:20). Further research would be needed in order to ascertain whether the exhibitions had any impact on the redevelopment of the Greek and Roman Art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The presentation of sculptures in The Greek Miracle was widely admired, even by those who disliked the exhibition in every other way. This was particularly true of reviews of the exhibition at the Met, where the use of natural light was commended and the re-installation of Greek and Roman Art there has been similarly admired.

The re-installation of Greek and Roman Art at the Met took place in four phases. First the Robert and Reneé Belfer Court for Prehistoric and Early Greek Art opened in May 1996, then seven Archaic and Classical (Greek art) Rooms opened in April 1999 and four Cypriot Galleries opened in April 2000. Next the Roman and Hellenistic Galleries were constructed and the Onassis Library for Hellenic and Roman Art was opened in 2007. Key to all these reopening was the provision of education resources, such as teachers' resources and an audio guide (ibid.:2).

The opening of the Greek Galleries in 1999, and the Roman galleries more recently, was met with rapturous praise. In an article headed ‘Glory Comes Home to the Classics' for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman admired the visual reinstallation of the sculptures in newly decorated galleries and their arrangement by theme, style and chronology (Kimmelman 1999). Karen Manchester congratulated the staff of the Met for a ‘truly sublime installation' in her review for Apollo magazine and drew attention to the presentation of Greek art ‘to an audience which may or may not be especially well informed about Greek art' through labels, panels, an audio guide and regular gallery talks (Manchester 1999).

Most recently, Gary Wills entitled his glowing review of the newly opened Roman galleries and the accompanying catalogue with an article entitled ‘We are All Romans Now'. This title and his last lines refers back to Shelley and, perhaps inadvertently, to the advert placed in The Washington Post for The Greek Miracle ‘We are All Greeks Now':

The legacy of Greece is everywhere, not just in Athens and Rome. That point is made clear in the sun-washed galleries of the Met, and in the splendid new catalogue of these rooms. We are all Greeks. We are all Romans. (Wills 2007)

Wills' comments on the legacy of the classical world being beyond Greece and Italy connect to recent debates and controversies about the acquisition (and repatriation) of antiquities to those countries. Whether conscious connections between the display (and criticism) of The Greek Miracle and the re-installation of the Greek and Roman Art in its galleries were made, the Metropolitan Museum's major exhibition programme would continually reinvigorate the interpretation of objects from the classical world and their display.

Two of the museums in Greece, from which many of the objects were loaned to The Greek Miracle, have had major renovations since the exhibition. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens had a major overhaul and redisplay after the 1999 earthquake in Athens and a revolutionary new Acropolis Museum in Athens will open in Spring 2009 [1]. The Acropolis Museum will display sculptures that had been on display in its old site on the Acropolis as well as sculptures from the Parthenon held in the present museum and the Centre for Acropolis Studies. The museum will incorporate a Byzantine archaeological site, which was found under the museum site, and will display Greek art chronologically. It has been used as a basis from which to call for the restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures from Britain and elsewhere.

The Greek Government and British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures have argued that all the Parthenon sculptures should be displayed together in one place, namely the new Acropolis Museum being built in Athens. The Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures illustrates how the sculptures are currently broken up with, for example, heads of slabs of the Parthenon frieze in Athens and the main body of the frieze in London (Korka, Tsakona, and Choremi 2002). At a large meeting that presented plans for the new Acropolis Museum in London in 2002, the then Greek Minister of Culture, Professor Evangelos Venizelos, the architect of the New Acropolis Museum Bernard Tschumi and the Director of the New Acropolis Museum Project, Professor Dimitris Pandermalis put their case. Pandermalis described the display of the Parthenon sculptures in the new museum:

The climax of the museum's exhibition program is the classical collection of the Parthenon architectural sculptures [...] On the north side, visitors will be able to stand before the Acropolis in the new museum and simultaneously look at the building from which the frieze originally came. The subtle and detailed differences in the surfaces will be visible as a result of the natural light and the visitor will have a clear view – and a clear sense of the unity of the exhibits and the building from whence they came (Pandermalis 2002).

The new Acropolis Museum in Athens is an interesting and, potentially, revolutionary archaeological museum. However, political and archaeological squabbling meant that this museum did not open in time for the Olympic Games and this damaged the restitution cause. Work only resumed on the site in April 2004 after a court ruling that allowed the building to be completed, following concerns about archaeological remains in the site. Recurrent delays have meant that it is not scheduled to open until Autumn 2008.

Restitution and Retention Debate

Gary Wills began his review of the newly refurbished Greek and Roman Art galleries at the Metropolitan by reflecting on the recent repatriation of material from the department to Italy and Turkey, due to accusations of looting and the purchase of unprovenanced material. Wills finishes his article with a defence of the retention of objects from classical antiquity in museums outside Greece, Italy and Turkey:

In the famous case of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, are todays' Greeks actually the descendants of ancient Athenians? For that matter, the Athenians themselves believed that the proper owner of works on the Parthenon was Athena – and she has been missing in action for some time now. As far as she is still alive, she is in the brains of all the people who read and love Homer and related works that deal with her – and there are far more of those outside of Greece than inside it. (Wills 2007).

The ownership and repatriation of objects is an increasing concern for museums and communities globally. Greece is not the only country requesting the return of cultural objects from a museum in the western hemisphere. The Elgin Marbles debate over retention and restitution is only one of many cases relating to ownership of cultural property and museum practice in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

The issues bound up in the restitution and retention of the 'Elgin Marbles' are related to the creation of the Acropolis as a national icon for the newly independent Hellenic State in the 1830s. Artemis Leontis argues that Hellas (which she takes to mean both a geographical and a psychological space known as Greece or Hellas) is a heterotopia. That is a space set apart in western cultural imagination placed between fantasy and reality, because it has classical ruins that are emblems of a romanticised and fetishised past. (Leontis 1995:7). The position of the Elgin Collection in the British Museum incites ‘nationalist powerpolitics' for both the restitutionists seeking to return the Elgin Collection to Greece and for the retentionists who insist the best place for the collection is in the British Museum.

The importance of the classical past in the construction of modern Greek national identity, in part to locate themselves both as heirs and ancestors to European civilisation, cannot be underplayed. Yet this construction also causes problems. On the one hand, it can lead to reaction against this classical past in favour of modernisation within Greece and on the other hand, it can lead to the modern Greeks being dismissed as fervent nationalists. Sofia Voutsaki debates the ambiguity of archaeology and the modern Greek relationship with the classical past, finding that:

Archaeology therefore contributed directly to centralization in Athens and to the contraction of the Hellenistic Nation into the Helladic State. Archaeology's task was to impart material reality to the archaistic ideology by imprinting the classical past on the Greek social imagination. It is perhaps ironic that the setting of the past on a pedestal created an unbridgeable gap between past and present, the effects of which are still with us today. (Voutsaki 2002:250; Hamilakis, 2007:1-8)

One of the effects of this relationship with the past is the restitution demand by modern Greek governments since the 1980s. Arguably this demand had a new emphasis and authority after The Greek Miracle exhibition in the USA.

The Greek government could point out that it loaned its antiquities, including objects from the Acropolis and Parthenon, to an international exhibition safely, thus contributing to international co-operation and scholarship in the arts. The loan also gave international attention to Greek antiquity and objects. After 1994, restitution leaflets (in Greek and English) were handed out to tourists visiting the Acropolis. Bill Clinton even became involved in the restitution argument while President (‘Return Elgin Marbles, says Clinton ', The Observer, 21 November 1999). The Observer reported that Clinton made sympathetic comments about the restitution of the Elgin Marbles to Greece on a flying visit to Athens in 1999. This could of course be linked to his unpopularity in Greece due to the US bombing of Kosovo earlier in 1999 – the bombing caused protest riots in Athens during April 1999.

Traditionally the British Museum made a standard statement in response, commenting on the place of the sculptures in a museum visited by over five million people per year and that the decision would be determined by an Act of Parliament, not by the Museum. The report Stealing History. The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material published by the Museums Association and ICOM UK in 2000 and a parliamentary select committee, aimed at the trade in illegal antiquities taking place now, put pressure on the British Museum 's case for retention (Brodie, Doole and Watson 2000). However, since the appointment of Neil MacGregor as Director in 2002, the British Museum has become more proactive at setting forth its case.

Neil MacGregor met the Greek Minister for Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, in 2003 to discuss the restitution of the Parthenon sculptures. MacGregor's answer was a firm ‘no', but this was still the first time representatives of these institutions have formally spoken together about the issue. In October 2003 MacGregor signed a statement supporting the idea of the universal museum. The statement was also signed by directors of the Art Institute of Chicago, Berlin State Museums, the Louvre Museum Paris, the Metropolitan Museum New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Prado Museum Madrid, among others. This international uniting of museums and museum directors has given a new strength of resolve to the British Museum's aims for universality. This occurs at a time when identity politics is being promoted and used to reclaim cultural identity within communities and nations, particularly those colonised by European empires until the mid-twentieth century. The statement explicitly clarifies its stance on the retention of cultural objects, and specifically the Parthenon sculptures, without actually mentioning them by name:

Indeed, the sculpture of ancient Greece, to take but one example, is an excellent illustration of this point and of the importance of public collecting. The centuries-long history of appreciation of Greek art began in antiquity, was renewed in Renaissance Italy, and subsequently spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas. Its accession into the collections of public museums throughout the world marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world. Moreover, the distinctly Greek aesthetic of these works appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other cultures. [2]

The statement emphasises that every single object displayed in a museum contributes to the overall development of culture. James Cuno, one of the museum directors who signed the statement (from the Art Institute of Chicago), published a book in 2008 that raises the difficulties around the purchase by museums of unprovenanced archaeological artefacts and the problematic claims made about cultural property by modern nation states. Cuno's polemic Who Owns Antiquity? is essentially an argument for the encyclopaedic museum to display objects from a multitude of different cultures in a way untainted by nationalist politics or ideology (Cuno 2008). Cuno takes Wills' argument and applies it to ancient civilizations across the globe. Of course, it could be argued that encyclopaedic ‘universal museums' have their own nationalist and cultural agenda (Challis 2006:33-39).

The statement issued in 2003 on the ‘universal museum' and the British Museum's involvement has been attacked for reconstructing the paternal ideal of the museum as a source of knowledge for its visitors, without recourse to historical narratives of ownership, colonialism and national identity. Far from dissociating himself from this patrician image of the museum Neil MacGregor has countered Greek moves towards restitution with articles in the press (MacGregor 2004:4-6 and Morris 2003:21-5). A statement on the ‘Parthenon sculptures' appears on the British Museum website and leaflets presenting the British Museum's point of view, are now placed in an eye catching place at the centre of the Duveen Gallery where the Parthenon sculptures are exhibited. The patrician image of the museum is clearly invoked in the title of MacGregor's article in The Guardian, ‘The whole world in our hands' as the title sets omniscient and god-like overtones. Arguing that the restitution debate is not about ownership, but displaying ‘everyone's culture' in one place for ‘maximum public benefit', MacGregor contrasts this stance to the Greek use of the Parthenon sculptures as ‘an instrument of nationalist politics' (MacGregor 2004:6). MacGregor is aware of the complexities of modern Greek history and considers that the restitution issue became important after the fall of the Colonels in 1974 due to enhanced nationalism.

There were debates about restitution before 1974, though MacGregor is right to cite the fall of the Colonels' despotic regime as an important trigger in the present debate, and nationalism forms an important part of the move towards restitution. However, arguably, after the fall of this dictatorship, Greek politicians needed to prove their democratic credentials, both domestically and on the world stage. The dominance of democratic ideology, though not necessarily practice, in international politics has also served to embed the iconography of the Parthenon sculptures as emblems of ancient democracy. The celebrations of the birth of democracy in 1992 to 1994, with two exhibitions at the centre of these celebratory events, only served to further strengthen this ideological iconography.

Olympics in Athens, 2004

On September 5 1997 the International Olympic Committee announced that Athens would hold the Olympic Games in 2004. Athens had previously bid to hold the 1996 Games, but this was surprisingly awarded to Atlanta in 1990. Whether The Greek Miracle exhibition and the celebrations around Athenian democracy had any impact on the decision making process is difficult and probably impossible to assess.

Arguably, though, given the decision to hold the games in Athens was based on the Olympic heritage of Greece, modern as well as ancient, such a major international loan and exhibition is likely to have had some bearing on increasing the status of Greece and enhancing its reputation for international cooperation (Smith 2004). The Olympic Games is the largest and, perhaps, most popular reception of the classical past in the modern period, holding as it does global significance and appeal. Nowhere has the elision of ancient and modern Greece been more apparent and more spectacular than in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens on August 13 2004.

After a dramatic countdown, a huge screen in the main stadium of Athens linked the Games to the site of the Olympic sanctuary in the Peloponnese and a fire bolt from Zeus, the god of the Olympian valley, lit the five rings of the modern Olympics. This dramatic opening, performed amidst the paying of Greek bouzouki music, was soon followed by the raising of the Greek flag, at which point the huge screen displayed the flag flying over the Acropolis. The procession of the athletes was preceded by a theatrical representation of 3,000 years of Greek history. This procession concentrated on the material remains of the Greek past: frescoes from Knossos and Mycenae are brought to life, the gods on the Parthenon frieze reappear to robe and disrobe, the pose of the discus thrower is taken up by over a dozen actors, Byzantine icons are re-enacted and modern folk art represented. Perhaps the most important spectacle of the ceremony was the huge Cycladic head from 2,700 BCE that splits into an archaic kouros and splits again into a classical sculpture. The fragments from this huge sculpture underpin the narrative of the ceremony and act as the most recognisable image of modern Greece. Sculpture and the visual arts of Greece are, again, at the centre of a popular interpretation of ancient Greece.

Interestingly, Yannis Hamilakis has recently drawn attention to the debates around the consumption of classical antiquity that took place in Greece around the staging of the Olympic Games. Hamilakis points out how classical Greece became a selling point for corporate sponsorship of the Games in 2004 amidst the general climate of national euphoria. The earlier Coca-Cola advert from 1992 that Hamilakis cited (with Coca-Cola bottle shaped columns on the Parthenon) has parallels, both aesthetically and in terms of its corporate message, with the advert for The Greek Miracle exhibition published by Philip Morris Inc in The Washington Post (Hamilakis 2007:1-8). Thus there are parallels between corporate sponsorship and the consumption of classical heritage for a major blockbuster and for the Olympics.

Democracy Debated (Again)

There has been continuing academic and public debate about Athenian democracy since the anniversary of the birth of democracy in Athens during the early 1990s. The debates around freedom and democratic rights in the modern world have become even more complex. More recently there has been a concentration on the Peloponnesian War in America with books written by ancient historians Victor Davis Hanson and Donald Kagan aimed at a more popular audience.

Victor Hanson is an academic at Stanford University and has written on Greek agrarian and military history as well as contemporary foreign and domestic affairs in the US. His latest book, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War was published by Random House in 2005, and was named one of The New York Times' 100 notable books of 2006. Hanson used his account of the Peloponnesian War to support ‘neoconservative political doctrine' and the foreign policies of the Bush presidency (Palaima 2005:62). Similarly so did Donald Kagan, professor at Yale University, in his The Peloponnesian War (2003) and On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (1995). In fact Kagan went further and co-wrote with one of his sons, Frederick, a professor of history at West Point, While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness and the Threat to Peace Today (2000). His other son Robert Kagan is a foreign policy adviser to John McCain and has recently written The Return of History and the End of Dreams, a survey of the last decade of international politics. While America Sleeps drew on Winston Churchill's While England Slept and John F. Kennedy's Why England Slept, both about England 's political position in the 1930s, to argue that 'America is in danger', that its national security was threatened by foreign powers and so America needs to be a global policeman to combat this. Donald Kagan's comments that his study of Greece has taught him that war is the default mode of the human species (Felman 2002). Arguably, the origins of these American centric readings of the ancient world can be seen in some of the celebratory rhetoric around The Greek Miracle. If American is equated with democratic Athens, then lessons need to be learnt from the Peloponnesian War to protect American democracy and interests.

Two recent books on Athenian democracy, also by American academics but aimed at a general public audience, are useful to consider since they give very different accounts of Athenian democracy and its reception. Loren J. Samons' What's Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship (2004) is a conservative reading of Athenian democracy that considers the dangers of worshiping Athenian democracy and the misunderstanding amongst the general population about the function of a representative democracy. The point of the book, argues Samons, is to foster criticism about modern concepts of democracy and to make clear why America is a representative democracy as the founding fathers of America considered Athens unstable and elected leaders could be shielded from the sometimes ‘volatile popular will.' (Samons 2004:1-2). Samons builds on M. I. Finley's point that the fact that the western world now believes that democracy is the only legitimate form of government is an odd phenomenon. Samons is critical of historians such as Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick, the academics behind the Democracy 2,500 project, ‘who offer Athenian democracy as a laboratory or model for modern democratic practice' as American democratic practice is different to Athenian practice for good reasons. He further criticises Ober for being a ‘postmodern historical theoretician' who has disrupted traditional narrative history (ibid.:122).

There is clearly more to Samons' argument than his disgruntlement with the discursive nature of the Democracy 2,500 project and debate around Athenian democracy. His views appear to be rooted in the Culture Wars around critical theory and identity politics taking place on and off campuses in America. In essence, Samons argues that shared values around religion, family and morality are lost in the crusade for democracy, choice and individual freedoms. This is a very conservative reading of both American and Athenian democracy.

A year later Paul Woodruff gave a very different response to Athenian democracy and American concepts of freedom in First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. Paul Woodruff considers democracy to be a ‘beautiful idea' and considers democracy a safeguard against one person or group having power that leads ‘to arrogance and abuse' (Woodruff 2005:3). Woodruff outlines the tools of first democracy to be the legal system, the governing body, checks on majority rule, lottery, elections and accountability and examines the Athenian practice of these tools. He finishes by considering how American practice measures up against the ideal of democracy in the modern world and concludes that since World War Two America has fallen behind these ideals and needs structural changes.

Woodruff examines the growth of influence in dogmatic groups and, like Robert Hughes in his review of The Greek Miracle, quotes Louis MacNeice's poem Autumn Journal on the dangers of inequalities in Greek democracy and by extension the modern world. Woodruff's book, like those by Hanson, Kagan and Samons, is clearly influenced by the ‘War on Terror' rhetoric around freedom and America 's foreign policy, albeit from a very different political position:

As I write this book, the United States seems to be edging further away from the essential principles of democracy. The growing political power of wealth undermines equality, the retention of prisoners on Cuba threatens the rule of law, and the rising number of electoral districts that are safely in the hands of political parties undermines the value of peoples' votes. (Woodruff 2005:18)

These two recent books illustrate the importance of contemporary events and partisan politics on the reception of ancient democracy.

The debate has continued since 2005. In a paper at the Classical Empires in Contemporary Culture conference at University College London on 23 May 2008, Adam Goldwyn considered the different ways Athens and its empire had been used by different columnists in The New York Times to reflect on America and its foreign policy since 2001. Goldwyn found that Athens and Greek history was used extensively by columnists of differing political persuasions as a barometer for reading America and this was mainly due to the feeling of a shared democratic heritage (Goldwyn 2008). Debate around Athenian democracy has clearly continued since the celebrations and exhibitions around the anniversary of Kleisthenes reforms in the early 1990s. How much the two exhibitions considered here had an impact on or informed these later debates is difficult to gauge, but if nothing else they cemented the idea that there is a reflective and practical relationship between ancient Athenian democracy and modern America democracy.


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[1] Construction of the new museum began in Autumn 2004. Its current opening date is scheduled for Spring 2009. However, the ground floor of the Museum opened in April 2008 (open to the public 10.00 to 18.00 daily).
This provides an opportunity for visitors to have a taste of the Museum's
architecture while the permanent exhibition is being mounted in the upper
floors. Visitors are also able to catch a glimpse of the archaeological excavation that lies within the Museum's lower levels through the large expanses of glass 'windows' in the ground floor. (Source: Acropilis Museum Website

[2] British Museum, ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums', (last accessed 09/01/2004).