Several well-attended museums in Greece closed this week as archaeologists in the country demonstrated in protest of a newly approved law that could permanently alter those institutions and reshape how looted antiquities are shown abroad.
The law would effectively make it so that the five museums in question—the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture of Thessaloniki, and the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete—are split from control by the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The move would make it so that these museums are allowed to run more freely, but they will also have to undertake certain efforts on their own, most notably fundraising.
Lina Mendoni, head of the ministry, said the move was intended to modernize the museums, citing “the need for a change in the way of administration of the specific public museums, as well as the expansion of their activities and actions.”
But the changes could also be accompanied by more drastic ones involving staff. Some experts have claimed that the law would make it so that government-appointed boards will ultimately be the ones operating these museums. For years, it has been archaeologists who have ran these institutions; now, these experts claim, the boards may no longer have to include experts in the field.
Archaeologists protested in response before certain museums this week, with the Association of Greek Archaeologists even calling for a strike.
“It hands over the management of Museums infrastructure and all their real and mobile property, paid for by the Greek people, as well as the experienced staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who employ them, into the hands of government-appointed Boards, so that they display future actions and revenue as their own ‘success,'” the association wrote in a Facebook post on Monday.
This new law was first proposed earlier this month and was approved by Parliament on Monday. It has since become snared in political in-fighting, with Alexis Tsipras, the head of the left-wing Syriza party and the former Prime Minister of the country, saying, “Once again, culture and the people of culture are under persecution.” Syriza members abstained from the vote on the law.
Tsipras was also referring to another aspect of the new law that would guide the long-term “export” of certain antiquities. The “export” portion essentially refers to extended loan agreements that would enable looted antiquities to remain in foreign countries for prolonged periods before they head back to Greece.
It would allow for arrangements similar to the one guiding Leonard Stern’s collection of looted Cycladic antiquities, which is set to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 25 years before they head back to Greece. Some have claimed that this allows Greece to avoid legal back-and-forth while also skirting any potential confrontation with buyers of looted artifacts.
Others have worried that the “export” part of the law will enable the British Museum to continue to hold onto the Parthenon Marbles. Several outlets have reported that British Museum representatives and Greek officials are in private talks over a possible return deal for these ancient Greek artifacts.
Mendoni, who was appointed to her post by the center-right Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, issued a separate release on Monday in which she hit back against Syriza politicians and those participating in the strike. She reported that only 15 percent of the museums’ staffs were involved in the strike and accused Syriza of calling for another restructuring of Greek museums that would enable to them to “launder dirty donor money.”
And, responding to the accusation that the export stipulation could allow looted artifacts to stay abroad permanently, Mendoni said the law was clear on that front. “Where is the suspect?” she asked. “Where is the permanent export of the antiquities planned?”
Mendoni reiterated that Greece’s position was that the Parthenon Marbles were “stolen goods” now owned by the British Museum.