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

In 1992/93 the 2,500th anniversary of democracy was celebrated. The anniversary of the beginning of Greek democracy was held in 1992/3 as a recognition of the reforms of Kleisthenes in 508/7 BCE. [1] Various scholars also advocated different moments for the celebration of democracy, for example Karl Raaflaub argued that the defining moment of Athenian democracy was in the 450s BCE when a range of radical reforms extended democratic practice [2].

However, the actions of Kleisthenes in setting up a Boule or Council of 500 men chosen annually by lot from the entire citizen body to act as a steering committee for the Assembly in 508/7 BCE was chosen as an emblem for the establishment of democracy in Athens. Citizenship was changed to be based on residence in one of Attica's newly created demes, rather than kinship. Demes were small village communities of Attica and these in turn made up ten newly created tribes from which the Boule would be chosen. Citizens now had their own name and a deme name, as well as a family name, and the deme was the focus of political activity and loyalty. These measures were celebrated as defining moments of when ancient Athens became a democracy.

Museum exhibitions are an important area where different scholarly disciplines and a more mainstream audience intersect. Two significant exhibitions marked the anniversary of democratic reforms in Athens. The Greek Miracle. Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy. The Fifth Century BC exhibition was held at National Gallery of America in Washington DC and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1992 to 1993. The Birth of Democracy: An Exhibition Celebrating the 2500th Anniversary of Democracy was held at the Gennadius Library in Athens and the National Archives, Washington DC in 1993.

This case study looks at the reception of ancient Athens and democracy in these exhibitions (The Art Blockbuster and Archaeology and Text), and examines the issues that were raised for scholars and museum professionals. The emergence of art blockbuster before 1992 is examined in 2,500 Years: Blockbuster Exhibition - The Context to place it in a better cultural context. There is also an additional overview of other relevant events commemorating ‘Democracy 2,500' in Democracy Celebrated and Debated.

Exhibiting Democracy: Critical Conclusions summarises the direct and indirect response in the academic community to the exhibitions and events. For those who are coming fresh to the subject, a very brief summary of the scholarly, museum and political background to the exhibitions in 2,500 Years: The Background provides a basic context. This also sets out some questions that could be used as a point of reference for future research on the reception of Athenian democracy. A similarly brief section, Museum Heritage Debates, outlines the possible impact of the exhibitions and the celebration of the anniversary.


[1] However, the date of the anniversary was in dispute and could also be celebrated in 1993/4 due to accounting for the year 0.

[2] Karl A. Raaflaub, ‘Power in the Hands of the People: Foundations of Athenian Democracy', Morris and Raaflaub (eds.), Democracy 2500? (1998), pp. 31-66.