Athens: A Museum Here; A Museum There
Today in Athens, I visited a museum. Actually, I visited a bunch of museums. This raises an important question. What is the appropriate collective noun for museums? I know it’s not a flock or pride of museums. Nor is it a drove, fleet, murder, pack, herd, or horde. I can think of a lot of collective nouns it’s not, but I can’t think of the proper collective noun for museums.
A “collection” of museums comes to mind, but that would confuse people. “Are you talking about a group of museums, a museum’s collection, or the collections of more than one museum?”
My lack of knowledge of the appropriate word leads me to choose one. I choose bunch. That’s it. It’s how I started this post. A bunch. I visited a bunch of museums today. That bunch numbered four.
The first two museums, the Jewish Museum of Greece and the Museum of Popular Greek Instruments, are small. The other two, the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the War Museum, are not small. They aren’t huge, you understand. They aren’t, for example Louvre large, but they are big enough that you are not legally allowed to call them small. You can apply for a special permit to attach a “small” label to them, but I didn’t request that permit. So, let’s call them medium to large sized museums. I don’t want to get in trouble with the law here.
The Jewish Museum of Greece
The door to the Jewish Museum of Greece is locked during opening hours. I assume they also lock it when the museum is closed, but that’s irrelevant for the purpose of this journal.
To enter, I had to press the doorbell. A guard buzzed me in, I imagine after assessing me on closed circuit television. Then, after a beefy security guard got a better look at me in person, I walked through a metal detector and past a small, glass-faced security office. Another beefy security guard sat inside the office.
Will there ever come a time when antisemitism will abate to the point where these precautions aren’t necessary at Jewish institutions around the world? Considering how many centuries, and even millennia, it has festered, I fear not.
But enough of that. Seriously. Enough of that. Let’s all live in peace. Or, if not in peace, at least not in abject hate.
Where was I before I got into that rant? Oh, yeah. The Jewish Museum of Greece.
It’s a small museum spanning four floors. Not surprisingly, it devotes a portion (in no way a majority, but not an insignificant portion either) to antisemitism, including, but not exclusively, the evil paragon of antisemitism, the Holocaust.
I learned at the museum that, at its peak, the Jewish population of Greece numbered about 100,000—primarily Jews whose ancestors (or themselves) had been chased out of other places.
At the start of World War II, the Jewish diaspora in Greece was about 78,000 people. Then the Nazis invaded. They divided the country into three occupation zones, German, Bulgarian, and Italian. Then they did what those sorts of evil-incarnate fascists tend to do. As a result, only about 10,000 Jews survived in Greece after the war.
Jewish Life in Greece and in General
As I said, the above doesn’t consume the entire museum, or even the majority of it. The other exhibits include oldish religious artifacts. One floor dedicates its space almost exclusively to items used for Jewish holidays: A Chanukah menorah, a Passover Haggadah, Purim decorations, etc.
Other displays include old worship and other ceremonial items, including an old Torah and a number of tiks (Torah cases).
Placards hang on many of the walls. They provide excerpts of interviews with Greek Jews. Most of the interviewees were children of Holocaust survivors. One or two were Holocaust survivors. The trials and tribulations of being Jewish in Greece was a common theme in the excerpts.
The museum provided ample descriptive text on walls and on laminated sheets in Greek or English that could be borrowed in each room.
The lowest level of the museum contains a life-size replica of half of a very small shul. Either that or it is a small-scale replica of half of a large synagogue. I’m not sure. But the furniture and Torah ark looked the appropriate size, so I think it was the former.
Museum of Popular Greek Instruments
The Museum of Greek Instruments is a fun little museum. And I do mean little.
After I paid my €3 entrance fee, the ticket seller told me about the free WiFi and insisted that, if my phone supports PDF, I use the QR code posted at the ticket counter to download information about the museum. I did. It was a brochure primarily promoting the museum. The museum I was already in. The museum I already paid to enter.
The museum’s three small floors contain a collection of old Greek musical instruments of a variety of types.
I was interested to learn that Greece had bagpipes. I thought they were limited to Scotland and the modern Scottish diaspora. However, according to the museum, bagpipes entered Greece in the first or second century AD.
I know of only two types of people. People who love bagpipe music. And people who hate bagpipe music. I’m sure there are people who are neither here nor there about bagpipes, but I don’t know any. Then again, I can’t recall ever asking anyone their opinion of bagpipes. I only learn of that if the subject comes up serendipitously. And that’s rare. So I might know people who are meh on them without knowing that about them.
I’m not one of the meh people. I’m one of the bagpipe haters. So learning that there are Greek bagpipes was a point against Greece for me. Fortunately, I haven’t had them inflicted on me here. Yet.
The guidebook that informed me about the Museum of Popular Greek Instruments told me that it has a number of headphones I could use to listen to a variety of Greek music. I didn’t see any. Instead, there were a number of signs that included QR codes that took me to web pages where I could listen to samples of the music described on the signs. I didn’t have any earbuds with me. Rather than imposing on the few other people in the museum by playing the music over my phone’s speaker, I saved a few of the more promising URLs so I could listen to it later. You can listen too if you want by clicking here, here, or here.
When I said I didn’t see any headphones, that is true only in the plural. One lonely headphone hung on a wall. It had no accompanying sign. I tried putting it on. It was silent. I tried pushing the unlabeled button immediately above it. The headphone remained silent.
I figure it was it was a vestigial headphone kept, not alive, but as a relic tribute to the headphone species supplanted by the QR species. Evolution is relentless and cruel to the predecessor species.
Byzantine & Christian Museum
The guidebooks and walking tour app I use recommend the Byzantine & Christian Museum as a must see. (Some sources, including an official banner outside the museum, drop the “& Christian” from the name, but the museum’s website includes it. So that’s the name I’ll use. The web rules.)
The ticket office is in a separate building from the main part of the museum. However, the building with the ticket office includes a couple of small rooms used for temporary exhibits. When I was there, the temporary exhibit was of a contemporary artist’s works inspired by Byzantine patterns.
I walked into the main part of the museum and entered a not particularly large room. It contained Byzantine stone objects. A stairway down took me to another room of the same size with, if I recall (possibly not), similar objects.
Another stairway led down to a final level that, as it appeared when looking down the stairs, was another similar sized room. I had mixed feelings about that. Part of the mixture was, “Thank goodness! This museum isn’t nearly large enough to tucker me out.” The other part of the mixture was, “What? I paid €8 and this is all I get?!” I’m not always rationally consistent.
Neither reaction was appropriate. After visiting the first two rooms, I continued down the staircase to the lowest level. At first it looked like a similar sized room. Then I noticed it extended back past some exhibits located about where the back wall was on the first two levels. I worked my way through the larger-than-I-originally-thought room. At the back, I found that there was another room off to the right. The museum continued on from there. Turns out, the Byzantine & Christian Museum is fairly large.
It contains a grand collection of Byzantine architectural elements and stone fragments from buildings, paintings, segments of mosaic tile floors, scrolls, coins, weights, and funereal items. And, of course, it, no doubt, contains a bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten.
You can learn a lot from a museum, but you probably won’t learn much of it secondhand from me. I’d be happy to teach it to you if I could, but most of it flies out of my head to goodness knows where almost as soon as I acquire, or should I say short-term rent, it.
As large as it was for me, the Byzantine & Christian Museum is even larger than I was able to see. When I got to the end of the lower level I arrived at a stairway that led up to another exhibit room. I know it was an exhibit room because I could see some exhibits from the bottom of the flight of stairs.
But I couldn’t go up because a queue-style stanchion blocked off the stairs. Instead, a museum attendant directed me up an unadorned stairwell without any exhibits. The stairwell led me to the exit. I assume that if the other stairway had been open it would have taken me to more exhibit space and eventually to the exit. I don’t know.
Why was that stairway closed? Because I was there. That’s the only explanation I can think of. As best I could tell, there wasn’t any construction or renovation going on. I don’t want to use the word “conspiracy” here, but if you’ve been following along in this journal over the last few days, well, you know.
The War Museum arranges its exhibits largely in chronological order. It starts with 10,000 BC. I don’t understand why some of the items a millennium or so and more ago were in the War Museum. The early display cases display some stone points that I guess could have been used in war.
But the exhibits then moved through the years to some objects that definitely weren’t objects of war, such as pots and jugs. And, yes, the War Museum displays some Cycladic figurines with their arms folded—pretty much the opposite of a warlike gesture—like the ones I saw at the Cycladic Museum and the National Archaeological Museum. I never realized how many Cycladic figurines existed. In part, that’s because I can’t recall ever hearing of Cycladic figurines until my visit to Athens. (Yes, I’m a ignoramus.)
How did those people in the Cyclades back then survive? With all of those Cycladic figurines around, they couldn’t have done anything but make figurines. And people cannot live on Cycladic figurines alone.
It was not until the museum got to the Bronze Age that it exhibited items that more obviously were or could have been objects of war—spearheads and swords.
I say “could have been” because how can anyone be certain they were used in war? The ancient swords could merely have been props in a particularly prescient ancient production of the Mark of Zorro.
The museum continues to progress chronologically from there. In doing so, it mostly sticks with war themes. The exhibits include not just weapons, but also maps, as well as paintings and reliefs depicting war themes. Among the stone reliefs were a number that depicted mythical war scenes involving a centaur.
I said above that the museum stuck mostly to war themes after the earliest millennia presented there. However, it didn’t so so exclusively. I also saw some old jugs. I guess soldiers use jugs for various purposes, but the tie-in to war wasn’t obvious to me.
War Through the Ages
The museum works it way through the ages and displays weapons, armour, model battleships, model fighter planes, model tanks, uniforms, medals, motorcycles, and paintings and drawings of war scenes and war-related personages.
A video playing in one room showed a woman singing with a piano accompanist. It was recorded in a room of the War Museum. For two reasons, I have no idea what she was singing about:
- The sound wasn’t on.
- In all likelihood, she was singing in Greek so I wouldn’t have understood even if they did turn the sound on.
Another room had a video that had the sound (primarily a narrator) playing at an adequate volume for me to hear. The video displayed maps and people dressed in old costumes and carrying guns. The audio narrative was only in Greek. There were no subtitles. I didn’t watch long, so I don’t know what I missed. And, truth is, considering that I don’t speak Greek, I still wouldn’t have known even if I stayed.
Another room that depicted a more modern time, but still old compared to even me, had a video comprised of old film footage of soldiers marching in various settings. Again the narration was in Greek. And again it had no subtitles. I stayed watching that one about as long as I did the prior one.
Another room had a video that had English subtitles. It was about the Balkan war, Greece’s role in it, and the liberation of Greek territory by the Greek army. There was probably more to it than that, but by then I was museumed out. The English subtitles kept me longer than I otherwise would have stayed, but not much.
Other rooms had more videos with English subtitles but, at that point, I bordered on the catatonic state usually induced in me if I stay too long in museums. So I didn’t watch those latter videos at all. And I skimmed most of the final exhibits.
On a patio near the exit, the War Museum displays some actual military aircraft including a helicopter, a turboprop plane, and a couple of relatively modern jets. The fresh air woke me up, so I examined those.
You’d think that by this stage of my life I’d learn to not pack the visit of four museums into a single day. I should spread them out over multiple days.
I thought that, because the four were each so very different from each of the others, the variety would mean that the museum catalepsy-induction effect would not be cumulative. Apparently it was. Live and learn. Unless I go into a permanent, total catatonic state, in which case I imagine that will prevent me from learning anything.
Last Day in Athens
This is my last full day in Athens. I’ll be traveling around outside of Athens for the next two weeks. I come back the day before I have to catch my flight from Athens airport. But I’ll probably have at most a half day here then. So I might not have much more to write about Athens here.
You know, Joel, you should be thankful. Think of how skilfully you avoided the strategically placed room barricaders by getting to see all the exhibits that you did. Too many, at that by the sounds of it! Perhaps when you plan 4 museums in a day you should walk a little more slowly so they have time to get to the rooms ahead of you. I can’t say that I have a lot of stamina for war museums, which I would find a real slog. But I don’t! Always more art museums to see. If not that, architecture. Turtle ponds are good. And then there are delicious lunches and rare and exhilarating views! Forge on, and keep writing. Hopefully, by tomorrow I will only be one hour behind you.