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Sustainability and Changes in Tourism at Greece’s ancient sites during Covid-19: What we can learn

Re-visiting Greece in the World of Covid-19: Some thoughts on how museums and sites have used the current circumstances as an opportunity to begin making meaningful & sustainable improvements for future generations

Cover image: a sign panel about Covid-19 restrictions and repercussions at the Ancient Theatre at Pella; all photos by author unless otherwise stated. 4 August 2020.

NB: This article was written at the beginning of September on experiences in August. Situations may, and did, change: among other things, measures in Greece are much more strict at the time of publishing. Equally, new developments in the field have been matched by new articles & ideas (see National Geographic). They largely consolidate the view of Greece’s pioneering role detailed below.

As many an Athenian roaming around the streets of Monastiraki in the summer of 2020 will proudly tell you, Greece coped remarkably well with the Covid-19 pandemic which hit Europe in March. In stark contrast to the exponential spike in cases in the rest of Europe and even its closest neighbours, Greece kept both infections and deaths down — and at a consistently low rate at that.

That’s not to say that it was easy. Much credit for the remarkable resilience must be given to the harsh lockdown measures imposed early on when the first cases entered the country, to the closing of borders and clear communication, the responsibility of the Greeks. This remarkable success is certainly down to their remarkable spirit.

An astonishingly empty Acropolis — good for the few tourists there, but just how good a sign of the broader health of the economy, tourism, and society overall? 11 August 2020

So they’ve come out anew, largely unscathed — with a positive attitude. But how did these new measures affect other areas of life? This is where my Classicist-impulse comes in. How did the pandemic and Greece’s response to it affect the Greeks’ relationship with one area in particular: the ancient monuments and archaeological sites? What I want to focus on in this piece, then, is how the Greeks’ constructive response to the pandemic mirrored a similar positive change in another field fundamental to Greece: its ancient heritage, sites, and museums. Many articles have talked about how the pandemic helped the ties binding Greek society forge stronger together than before, united behind the Μένουμε Σπίτι slogan (let’s stay at home), hardened by the collective endurance — fewer (but certainly not none) focus on how they constructively made use of, applied, and adopted this outlook when rethinking how to re-open, present, and channel tourism back to the sector that accounts for 18% of Greece’s GDP (if not more). What will the effects of a 3-month lockdown and poor financial outlook be on the sites of a country that has, as a recent Deutsche Bank report showed, one of the highest dependencies on tourism in Europe?

In this Ostraka article, therefore, I want to explore how the Greeks in the summer of 2020 used the constructive ideas cultivated during the pandemic response to rethink their attitudes towards their ancient sites, tourism to them, and the values they represent, when they began to re-open. But first a bigger question: Why should I of all people have the initiative to do this, and why now? Put shortly, I had the fortune (for which I am very grateful) to visit Greece, along with my best friend from Durham, with a grant to conduct some Masters research. While there, I was struck by how certain information panels, newly-introduced features, and layouts in certain sites had changed in this summer of 2020 compared to when I had visited before. So I proceeded to take notes and monitor these changes across the twenty-odd sites we visited. This time, the theoretical side of just how we learnt the information was just as interesting as what we saw, the content.

An example of a socially-distanced visit to a museum, right up until the very last moment — here at the archaeological museum in the Athens International Airport; 14 August 2020

What I’ll argue from my experience, therefore, involves a cautious balance: while the pandemic certainly caused a lot of suffering for the Greek people and difficulties in maintaining sites, in many instances it seemed to have provided cultural authorities with a rare opportunity to implement certain positive changes in presenting, regulating access to, and organising ancient sites. By the time I visited in August, this was already visible. But what really struck me was that these changes were especially geared towards enacting sustainable tourism, i.e. safeguarding ancient sites and tourism for future generations in a more responsible way, by minimising and removing negative impacts on the environment such as pollution, footfall, and erosion, aiding preservation, and foregrounding awareness of cultural heritage and its precarity. So kudos to the Greeks for not just coping well in the pandemic, but also for using it to take the first concrete steps of putting sustainable tourism into practice.

And the effect, as we’ll see, was more positive than I could have foreseen — this new environment provided the spark for me to notice things I had not seen before and to make connections relating to how I learnt about the site, not just what I rotely learnt. Museology and the debates relating to visiting sites today, in other words, were placed in the fore and encouraged visitors to become invested in the future of these sites. So beyond the history of the things we visited, I want to discuss how the measures authorities put in place enriched my experience in a new, and in many ways positive, way.

First, I’ll preface my first-hand observations with some theoretical thoughts and case studies of the problems of mass tourism and urgent need for sustainable tourism at certain sites in Greece including Santorini. Once we’ve set this groundwork, I’ll move onto some of the practical changes that were put in place in museums and archaeological sites this summer, and explore the few challenges they at first created. When contrasting this to the positive changes, however, I’ll pick up just how much the constructive changes outweighed the negatives, and explore how they helped us understand the sites more fully and become aware of sustainable tourism. Finally, I’ll focus on three concrete case studies of sites we visited that best exemplify how the positive changes effectively created a dialogue with the visitor about sustainable tourism: Aigai, the Acropolis, and the National Archaeological Museum. All of this will hopefully demonstrate in a well-rounded manner how authorities have thought about sustainable tourism and are using it to preserve sites, promote their cultural heritage, and open them to the world in a new and more responsible way.

On a more positive note, the pandemic certainly produced some good advertisements about staying home and being responsible. This one, outside the Kapodistrian, says (in albeit poor Google-translate-style): “you stayed behind [at home] but you did not run out of/miss the pleasure”.

Finally (really this time, sorry!), before we embark on these reflections, I should say a few words of clarification about the visit. First, one might ask why on earth I had taken the trip in the first place, at a time when it is vital to stay at home and actively prevent the spread of Covid. No answer I can give will fully justify this; throughout the trip we took great care everywhere to regard safety measures, avoid large crowds, keep PPE on, and stay updated. On a more positive note, this constant attention made us more aware of certain things we had taken for granted before, and in the academic sense helped us make the most of the opportunity. Second, I should say that many of my ideas were formed equally through the astute observations of my fellow travel companion Charles — so many of my insights were inspired by him, and this piece is duly dedicated to him. Finally, I should say that while I have been researching this for a while, I am not an expert and am not trying to give a definitive account (rather just some thoughts), and apologise for any inaccuracies in the hope that others will build on it.

So let’s get started and take our strange new porthmeutike to Greece, from the heights of Thessaloniki & Macedon following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great’s early life, to the ancient sites on the slopes of Mt Olympus, and finally down to Athens and Attica. Sadly, it was difficult to take pictures of sites explicitly with their Covid-19 changes in a way that seemed appropriate, so the photos are somewhat more lacking than usual. Don’t forget your mask and disposable gloves, because we’ll certainly be needing them on the way!

Part 1: Pyrrhic Victories — Between the Practical Limitations and Meaningful Benefits of Visiting Greece in Summer 2020

A sad sight: many of the best local eating places had closed partly due to the lack of tourists and visitors in the month of August (along with it being the natural month for holiday). 12 August 2020

I want to start not by jumping straightaway into the places I visited, but by discussing a place that I read about in an article while waiting at the airport. It’s an island that exemplifies most acutely the problems of modern mass tourism eroding away a place in an increasingly irreversible way: Santorini.

Just how acutely is it being affected this summer? Stats suggest 90% of Santorini’s income derives from tourism — and recently perhaps even higher, as restaurants have worked tirelessly these past few years to open their doors to year-round tourism. How are locals responding to this change? This case study of Santorini will inform my experiences with sustainable tourism in Greece this summer.

On 16th July, Greece-Is published an article detailing how Santorini would be different this summer without the overwhelming crowds of tourists that typically submerge the island, and especially how locals were taking this as an opportunity to make some positive change. What’ll be different? First off, for better or worse, the most visible impact on Santorini, namely the notoriously packed mega-ferries that barge into Thera’s bay of Athinios with at times up to 20,000 (!) tourists per day, aren’t expected to be rushing back any time soon. Phew. On the island itself, the financial stress is restricting the spawning of new concrete hotels and overdevelopment projects precariously engulfing the cliffs and older sites, giving some much-needed breathing space for Santorini’s traditional monuments. Equally, while tourists can still arrive by air at the international JTR, a strict quota on their numbers has been imposed. Overall, only 15% of the island’s usual tourist population is expected this summer, according to some hotel managers.

The natural beauty of the red sand beach near Akrotiri archaeological site, to the south-west of the island. 20 August 2019

As much as these changes will create widespread difficulties for all of Santorini’s inhabitants, many are realising that it’s a sacrifice worth making this time and that has been long overdue. In the long term, these changes, beyond preventing the spread of Covid, aim slowly to reverse the island’s slip into a “machine that just created money." Why did it become this machine? There’s certainly a very good reason why so many tourists flock to Santorini — it’s natural beauty (from the gorgeous sunset at Oia to the black sand beaches under Thera Archaeological Site) and historic importance are arguably unparalleled across the Cyclades. Yet as much as the ever-increasing number of tourists reel in ludicrous profit for Santorini’s inhabitants, the effects of erosion, overbuilding, all kinds of pollution, those omnipresent ferries, and the loss of Santorini’s old culture are taking its toll. Indeed, a rise in almost 50% of hotel beds on Santorini in only a decade has catalysed some travel magazines, e.g. CNN in Feb 2018, to put it on the list of places tourist may actively want to *avoid*. So the hope behind the changes this summer, the author Nena Dimitriou argued, is not so much to make up for the loss of tourism, as it is to rethink their tourism models and restructure their long-term relationship with the island.

In her article (which I really enjoyed at a groggy 6am Ciampino), the approach she took to encouraging more sustainable tourism for Santorini was by inviting you to visit lesser-known areas and towns of Santorini —staying away from the tourist traps and immersing yourself more in the rich traditional culture at places like the family-run church of Aghios Georgios Katefios near Pyrgos, over a glass of Assyrtiko. In promoting this traditional, off-the-beaten-track itinerary, she and others want to help tourists experience the natural beauty more responsibly by reducing overcrowding at sites, appreciate other but equally important parts of Santorini’s heritage (beyond Akrotiri) in a meaningful way, redistribute income, and diversify the interests of tourists. Most importantly, perhaps, she aims to encourage tourists to educate themselves and engage directly in the process of upholding sustainable heritage while doing these activities — an excellent way to preserve the island’s heritage for their children’s generations. Another way people on the island are replicating this is through a recent photo exhibition about, as proleptic as it sounds, traditional life on Santorini before mass tourism hit the island. Many such activities highlight a part of Santorini that’s less noticeably being lost: the traditional folk culture. Why forego these voices of Santorini – they’re part of the island’s history, arguably closer and more tangibly important than the ruins at Akrotiri and all-night sin-binge fests. Exhibitions like these, such as one in Sept 2019 on pre-tourist Oia (‘Once Upon a Time in Oia’), and the Manolis Lignos Folklore Museum in Thira, are helping to keep the memory of Santorini’s culture alive (as recently another famous British Classics TV personality did for the traditional fishing ships of Santorini, with odyssean results). After all, who wouldn’t want to take a glimpse through a Tomato Industrial Museum (in Vlychada)?

So, on the small scale, individuals are taking this opportunity to make the shift towards sustainable tourism by reducing the overcrowding and encouraging interest in other aspects of Santorini’s culture.

Our daily walk from the Airbnb accommodation at Mesaria to Thera to catch the public buses to the ancient sites. You can see a wretched ferry just peeking out from below the cliff! 21 August 2019

Yet at the same time, however, it’s also much more complicated than this rosy picture of linear investment and domino-effect optimism. The situation is a balance between prioritising the long-term environment of the island against the very immediate financial needs of the people. As good as these changes may seem, the “different pace” that Santorini will experience this summer will inevitably cause devastating hardship for all locals — including in their daily livelihood and mere survival. Losing the source of 90% of your income makes even day-to-day living hard. And that’s without even starting to think about the shift to sustainable tourism. If we still want to go there, we have to recognise that it’s a long tradeoff marked by huge up-front stakes & costs for investors who’ve already lost so much. So, at the core of it, having no money in the wake of Covid-19 for this investment *in the first place* won’t get anyone anywhere. However, it’s also in this hard situation where a tempting but dangerous solution might arise: one might wonder why they can’t obtain some money for this shift to sustainable tourism (or even just to survive) by going back to the old model for just this one summer, given the exceptional hardship. After all, wouldn’t it be a good reward for faring so well with the pandemic? A one-time ‘get out of jail free’ card. But that (as difficult as it would be to achieve this summer anyways) would be making the mass tourism problem worse. This (figuratively speaking) easy way out can justify a mentality that risks putting necessary change off further and continuing the harmful cycle.

So it’s a difficult balance to strike under any situation, much less in these circumstances. We must realise this before we start pontificating about what The Greeks Need To Do. When people’s livelihoods are at risk, well-intentioned actions to promote sustainable tourism can quickly spiral into accusations of ‘sabotaging tourism’. Moreover, as the Greek PM Mitsotakis admitted, Greece realistically needs some of its tourist season to pass this summer, whether it wants to implement immediate change or not. Doing so may not drastically increase mass tourism this time around. But it’s always a dangerous tradeoff.

Why so dangerous? The problem is that mass tourism still lies in the background of many well-intentioned discussions, with more problems than we might at first see. Putting the effects of mass tourism into perspective may highlight just how urgent it is; I’ll just give one. As much as any local disapproves of the ferry and bus tours that crowd the island, they do seem to bring in profitable trade. However, an increasing number of studies, such as the Bank of Greece’s in 2016, revealed that the ‘lion’s share’ of the profit from Santorini’s many ferry tours go to the ferry companies (e.g. ‘Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, MSC, Costa and Norwegian’), not the local shop-sellers or taverna-keepers of Santorini. If we recognise that change needs to happen now, we cannot hide behind the safety of going back to the old problematic way. This conflict is already happening in the first actions after lockdown. One of the island’s first major infrastructure initiatives in this new hiatus from tourists exemplifies this dilemma. The JTR Airport has recently completed a new terminal, while a new road was built connecting the airport to Oia and the port. Bolstering infrastructure always is good. But in the long-term, won’t the terminal only increase traffic from the air; the new road incentivise that from ferries? Authorities have argued that it will help to solve the congestion on Santorini’s narrow, winding roads – a right step in reducing noise & air pollution (important criteria for sustainability). Justifiably, it’s also helping to bring in more higher-paying ‘upmarket’ tourists, as we’ll see other tourist resorts in Spain doing to limit numbers, below. Yet does this good cover the other consequences? At the core, doesn’t this equally risk exacerbating the current problem of accommodating still greater numbers of tourists who are not conscious of their environmental and historical footprint? In which case, it’s a bit ironic that the CNN article goes on to say, immediately after noting how the road and terminal will facilitate transportation of more people, that “that very few…enormous vessels [i.e. ferries]– if any – will return in 2020 is considered to be good news”. But maybe I’m being overly critical (can you tell that I may have been affected by this side of mass tourism while on the island!). Innovation and infrastructure can certainly beget good change and catering to more upmarket tourists may limit the overall tourist numbers, increase income, and encourage more sustainable activities. If there’s one thing we should take from this, it’s that this is a thorny, complex issue. There’s no straightforward answer or easy way out, so we need to be aware of solutions that do good and ostensibly intend to do good, but act more as a distraction. Sustainable tourism is a long-term process, and needs to be taken seriously.

A poster for the ‘Till Then, Stay Safe’ Campaign; https://greece.greekreporter.com/2020/03/17/till-then-stay-safe-new-greek-tourism-campaign-urges-people-to-plan-ahead/

But enough of the negativity on this front of infrastructure— how are other areas on the island coping? So far, the cultural and historical authorities have been playing their own very active and constructive roles. It is guided by the thought that not being able to visit sites needs not equate to not accessing them. Many museums have been bolstering online virtual engagement with their artefacts for those at home, thereby decreasing loneliness, offering further education, and highlighting the importance of culture to our identities more than ever (see the Network of European Museums Organisation report for more). In particular, Greece’s innovative & educational advertising campaigns such as ‘Greece From Home’ are making Greek sites accessible online, while the ‘Destination Greece Health First’ and ‘Endless Greek summer’ initiatives are showing how Greece is actively tackling the pandemic, promoting its culture, and encouraging others to do so. They’re also involving local tour operators and institutions. So how does this relate to sustainability? Perhaps most importantly, as Greece’s tourism minister Theoharis noted and as the latter campaign’s title suggests, these activities are helping to make Greece’s tourism more sustainable and inclusive by facilitating year-round tourism and enabling more controlled numbers in peak season.

What’s more, at the time of writing this article at the end of August, some positive changes have already been undertaken at Santorini since the beginning of summer. A few months after Dimitriou’s article, the German broadcasting company Deutsche Welle made an excellent report on 19 August 2020 on the visible actions Santorini is taking to tackle mass tourism and promote sustainability. On the one hand, DW’s interviews with hoteliers showed that people were actively looking to more sustainable ways of gaining income beyond the tourism sector, including in farming and their famous wine production. On the other, and most visibly, the government has put in place an ambitious program of making Santorini fully plastic-free asap. If the massive benefits to the environment of this aren’t already clear enough, the advertisement posters scattered around the island and at the port certainly spread a message of hope and determination to be responsible in this difficult time. Already over these few months, Santorini has shown that positive change is coming, slowly but surely.

An ad for plastic-free Santorini initiative: ‘A clean island is all (the more) ready for photos!’; https://www.in.gr/2020/06/15/plus/ta-nea-tis-agoras/plastic-free-santorini/
An ad for plastic free Santorini: ‘; https://www.newsbomb.gr/oikonomia/epixeirhseis/story/1091347/h-lidl-hellas-ependyei-500-000-eyro-stin-kampania-plastic-free-santorini
An ad for plastic free Santorini; https://atlantea.news/epanekkinoume_to-elliniko_kalokairi/

So whatever happens, it doesn’t have to all be bad. As one of around 20 vineyard owners on Santorini interestingly compared it, ‘Everything about the island reminds me of winter’. It’s only a temporary wane – but one that people can take up positively and use to catalyse permanent change, whether it be by tourist services using technology in new more efficient ways, limiting the number of tourists and their footprint, finding different and more sustainable activities they can be interested in, or investing in educational activities to get tourists actively involved in Santorini’s future. Collective responsibility is key. And in its own way, Santorini is already perfectly poised to get a head-start and lead the way: the island’s famous hallmark of utmost privacy in tourism, dangled lusciously by those Instagram videos of partners waking up each morning in their private pour-deux cave suite graced by a walk-in, rose-petalled pool leading onto a private infinity-style pool terrace with breakfast served à la carte under the glowing rays of Aurora and the sea and cliffs sweeping below, is certainly an apt model of isolation required for Covid.

My own little omnipresent swimming pool when I visited Santorini with BSA ‘18 friends in August 2019. 19 August 2019. JAMES INCLUDE VIDEO

So it’s a promising start, a new Megali Idea. Talking about collective effort, these changes are not isolated to this worse-case example of mass tourism — other tourist sites in Greece are also reopening with the concern of sustainable tourism at the forefront of their policies. The Guardian recently published a similar piece on the Peloponnese (mainly Kardamyli), detailing the careful balance hoteliers were taking between welcoming as many tourists as possible and keeping an eye towards sustainable & responsible tourism (all under the auspices of socially-distanced 2020), as they slowly warmed up to a strange albeit renewed Greek summer from a hibernation free from tourists. This piece also nicely brings out the Greeks’ palpable joy at caring for their tourists again — xenia is still a joy, and making that leap to sustainability shines as an integral part of their culture and fabric.

An uncharacteristically empty Acropolis; 12 Augustus 2020

And it's not just in Greece that this is happening — elsewhere, the move towards sustainable tourism is rapidly building momentum at other notoriously popular holiday resorts too. One interesting case in comparison to Santorini, which a recent BBC article discussed, is the Spanish town of Magaluf on Mallorca. Here, the path to sustainable tourism takes a different approach. For the first time, the pandemic is providing breathing space for authorities to transform this “boozy” night town, drowning under pollution and high hospital and cleaning bills, into a more sustainable “upmarket destination”. Beyond simply bolstering infrastructure with a road system and terminal as Santorini has done, a whole new, more responsible audience is being targetted who will simultaneously increase revenue. The aim, then, is not only to make the resort more sustainable on the environment by limiting the number of people and preventing the harmful habits of the (mostly) young, alcoholic, British customers. It also involves promoting awareness of sustainable tourism: officials also want to attract tourists from a wider demographic, who have a broader range of responsible interests, can visit all year around, and are equally invested in the upkeeping of the island’s beauty and cleanliness— such as families and year-round tourists. The hope is that this will help the local economy become more sustainable and self-sufficient year-round. It’s a win-win scenario: both locals and a wider range of tourists can enjoy the now-safer and more attractive site.

How is the pandemic helping this? The reduced numbers of tourists are allowing officials to take the locals on special tours of the island to see the eroding effects of tourism (from the uncleanliness to the “precarious and low-paid nature of…jobs”), and debate how they can bring change as a community. Special workshops are training them to invest in this change. More broadly, in infrastructural terms, the government had recently begun to upgrade all the hotels for these “upmarket tourists”, invited more police from abroad, and placed restrictions on binge-drinking. This turn towards upmarket tourists has also been considered in Greece: in a discussion (mentioned in BBC) with The Hellenic Initiative, the CEO of Sani Ikos resorts Andreas Andreadis said that the higher prices some companies were now offering, partly pushed up by the new health and safety measures, are targetting these upmarket tourists: “It’s going to be a game of quality…This will push tourism towards the high end. The low end of the market will suffer most.”

Naturally, however, especially with the pandemic, it hasn’t all been smooth. As we saw with Santorini, perhaps the greatest obstacle for any major reforms on this tourism industry is the very real loss of economic resources caused by Covid-19— without mentioning Greece’s recovery from ten years of austerity. Naturally (and unfortunately), some sites, which likely already gain more tourism and money, will be prioritised over others that already struggle and thereby widen the inequality gap in funding (as I once discussed with the custodian at Virgil’s tomb in Napoli). Collectivity is key. One must also question whether the problem is being tackled by each party — including the government — correctly in each context. As the recent protests against officials at Magaluf showed, there are still major underlying problems concerning tourism that are not being addressed. Many locals protested that the government’s closure of shops during lockdown distracted from its failure to provide an adequate police force in the first place, instead shifting the burden onto locals. Many of whom are fighting just for survival, aggravated by the UK’s recent imposition of the 14-day quarantine restriction on tourists returning from Spain. And it’s not just small places like Magaluf that have these problems — in some ways, it’s worse in bigger places. Amsterdam’s mayor recently argued that larger places that receive year-round tourism have less time to “structurally” implement more sustainable models, even with the breathing space opportuned by the pandemic. But the biggest problem is that there’s always the temptation of going “back to normal”, exacerbated by the slow but steady return of tourists, to the model that always seemed to work, which for Greece produced €19 billion in 2019 — in the short-term, at least.

Nevertheless, these new conversations are helping authorities and communities to band together against the easy solution and develop new models for residents and tourists alike to invest in. What’s important is that it’s active and includes not just locals, but tourists too, in this debate. It’s a chance, for Magaluf at least, to change the reputation of its main street, dubbed the “500 metres of shame”, into an example of sustainable tourism.

So the transformation of tourism away from the model of huge numbers with irresponsible habits can and is being transformed positively, albeit slowly, in response to the pandemic. Greece can, and certainly has started to, learn from the examples from other foreign tourist sites like Spain, where one in eight jobs also rely on the sector that accounts for 12% GDP. And just like Santorini, perhaps Greece already has a natural advantage: as the BBC article argues, Greece has considered advertising itself as a place “to heal” from the pandemic, propped up by its remarkably low rates.

So change is happening. How do these broader examples and theoretical ideas apply to my experience in Greece this summer?

Admittedly, it must be said that beyond a few signs, some sites that I visited hadn’t changed all that much. I don’t want to over-emphasise the changes. Equally, however, I don’t want to degrade the Greeks’ visible efforts. This lack of ubiquitous change is not necessarily explained by people’s desire to return to the “old model”: economic constraints are equally pressing. But to say nothing changed is to vastly misrepresent the truth — change there certainly was. And where it was visible, it was largely positive and on the right track.

In this section, as we’ll see, often what most impacted the visitors’ experience the most were the bi-products of these measures, rather than the actual restrictions per se. I’d argue that it’s these indirect small things which first helped me to notice these changes and recognise how they were contributing towards sustainable tourism. As I’ll structure my discussion, they produced both positive and less positive changes. As much as one may claim these bi-products are not quantifiable or objective, we need to recognise that they equally affect one’s experience. In the end, once you recognise these changes, it seemed that the Greek authorities took advantage of the positives and tried to make it a new and overall satisfying experience in these circumstances — especially at three sites, as I’ll discuss in my concluding section.

The beloved computer screens were switched off in the Epigraphic Museum, marked with paper signs detailing the Covid-19 measures that resulted in it. I am annoyed that I did not take more pictures of the changes in place, but focused too much on the epigraphy itself! (Never thought I’d say that). 13 August 2020

Down to the nitty gritty. What changes were put in place in response to Covid-19 that were not there last year? Many archaeological sites and museums had a common set of safety measures in place, compiled by the government and epidemiologists — many of which are standard in other countries as well. Beyond the usual measures like the installation of hand-sanitiser dispensers at various points across the site and requirement of wearing masks in all closed spaces, museum staff were careful to sanitise all baggage (that now needs to be left in the cloakroom) with a (rather violent and frightful) disinfectant gun and take your temperature upon entry. All interior spaces will have windows open where feasible, with air quality and circulation always monitored. On a broader scale, sites were setting quotas on the number of tourists who could visit a site on any given day *and* at each hour — the Acropolis capped theirs to 2,200 visitors per diem. To aid this, officials have extended paths, created separate entrance and exit paths and doorways, and set out ‘pause areas’ to help the flow of tourists through areas with tricky mobility. Moreover, public and private tour guides are only allowed to bring in 8 to 10 people per tour, and (whether for better or worse for other tourists) must wear amplifiers when speaking to them. Already a big blow for the local guides outside individual locations, this has caused nightmares for larger bus tours visiting over longer periods of time.

So how did this all affect the tourist’s experience? On the one hand, some small things were particularly noticeable. As a student, I quickly noticed one limitation in the educative sphere that differed from previous years: all touch-based resources, including information panels for the blind and disabled, and plaster copies of artefacts to touch, were red-taped/sequestered off or turned off — being deprived of one of your senses has a big effect on understanding how ancient audiences would have interacted with (and almost certainly touched, as more studies are showing) these artefacts! It was a pity not to be able to feel the fabric of the Peplos Kore in the Acropolis Museum or read the vital and iconic (and quite advanced!) touch-screen displays at the Epigraphic Museum (especially in the stunning Blue Room).

My friend looking onto the sculpture, while I myself waited in the previous room for some other tourists to clear so that we could enter as part of the safe number of people to allow appropriate social distancing. 12 August 2020

But there were just as many, if not more, far-reaching changes that had the potential to affect one’s experience in positive ways. The most visible change, I’d say, was the best example. Many sites were carefully restructured to create a one-way system through which tourists could travel, in order to maintain social distancing. But re-direction can only achieve fewer people so far — eventually they will congregate around famous pieces. So in addition to this, some museums imposed watch custodians to make sure that there were no more than a certain number of people in each room at the same time. When there were too many, we had to wait outside in a safe socially-distanced line in the previous room. And so on. So a system of carefully demarcated groups were channelled across rooms — no small feat, and not without its merits. In smaller sites this was never really a problem. We saw this most clearly at the National Archaeological Museum. In practical terms, this means I had to wait circa 5 minutes in a socially distanced line before I could enter the room with the Artemision Zeus/Poseidon/?. This change certainly wasn’t all bad— who doesn’t want the opportunity to take a picture of that stunning severity without that constant one awkward person always straddling cluelessly between his parted legs?

Map of Athens’ National Archaeological Museum; see below for my argument about how re-visiting it changed my perspective on the artefacts and museum. https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/46584177383063901/

More importantly, it actively added to and improved my experience. Here I stress the importance of museology and how the way and order in which we walk through a museum changes our interpretation of the culture it describe. This one-way system forced me to explore the artefacts in an order that I had never done before — which actually helped me to gain some new perspectives. How so? I — without fail — always start my walk around the museum with the shiniest objects, i.e. the Mycenaean gallery (Room 4) with the likes of the Agamemnon mask and exquisite Vaphio gold cups. To be fair, it is a fairly logical way to start the tour even with the shiny gold, since it is the room that opens up directly in front of the museum’s entrance (1). But this also means that, instead of consequently walking to the middle of the statue collection (Room 21) once I finish the Mycenaean collection and starting the statue gallery from its second half (from Room 22) I usually do, I was able to start the statue gallery from its designated beginning at Room 7 (to the left of the museum entrance) that starts from the chronological beginning. In other words, I experienced the museum probably how the architects originally intended — chronologically. Hello there Archaic to Classical and Hellenistic, rather than the slightly chaotic Classical-Hellenistic-sudden Archaic panic. And this opened my eyes to many things I had never noticed before: apart from noticing new details in each sculpture, the most striking thing I realised was just how much effort the museum had put into organising the different sculptures so that they showed the development in style both within each period (e.g. from the archaic to severe kouroi and korai) and across each period. Viewing this both chronologically and more thematically made the sculptures, their style, meaning, and diachronic changes, make more sense, and helped me appreciate them more. Equally, since I saw the funerary dedications in Rooms 16–18 and bronze collection in Rooms 36–39 first this time, I was able to contextualise and visualise better the overall landscape of the sanctuaries whose remains are displayed in the second part of the sculpture collection I used to see first (Rooms 22–24). So we have one positive of that experience. On the other hand, the museum one-way system also did the opposite in another gallery. By ending my visit with the Mycenaean gold collection, we were chronologically going backwards through the artefacts in the museum. By doing so, I was noticing new things, such as how the Mycenaean styles and artefacts related to these later artefacts in different ways, and, perhaps more interestingly, how the qualities and values that dictated the arrangement of sculptures in the sculpture section were replicated and changed in the Mycenaean collection (and so we ring back to museology). These changes in the museum’s layout, part and parcel of the safety measures for Covid-19, can have real educative experiences for tourists — and are the first steps to realising how we can actively engage more tourists in the debate about sustainable heritage.

And so the examples and learning continue. The museum was also responsible in telling us all the relevant information just before we entered the first sculpture room with the Artemis (?) from Delos, especially on not spending more than 5 minutes per room and move on if over-crowding at a specific artefact started to occur. These were the thoughts that sparked my interest and inspired me to write this Ostraka article. Less seriously, I got some great pictures of my travel buddy Charles with some monuments along the way!

And this is just one example in the broader picture/it certainly doesn’t end here — restricting ourselves to changes in museums would be committing an injustice to the Greek authorities’ immense efforts at re-opening tourism. More broadly, the Greek gov has also extended these measures to other institutions dependent on tourism. I encountered this most clearly in the tavernas and eating places that we symposium-ed at. Most tables were placed outdoors under umbrellas to optimise ventilation (maybe those irksome water-spray-jets outside peak tourist restaurants have some use), and at a 2 square metre distance between each other (but don’t think that that’s the most — it’s 4 metres on beaches). Waiters wore masks and gloves, food was carefully delivered with as little physical contact as possible to tables with a maximum of six members. Plexiglass and plastic screens separated tills; disinfectant fills the air from the clean single-use tablecovers. Every sector was affected — this is just one. To cite another, ferries can only operate at 50% capacity — one of the reasons why one of my summer schools was cancelled this year. And of course, there’s always a lot of disinfecting!

But, as I’ll stress again later, rather than taking away from one’s enjoyment, the opportunity to dine al fresco at places like O Thanassis under the Greek shade & cicadas, offering remarkable space & privacy in a place renowned for its crowded interiors, was a real treat. This positive result seemed to characterise other measures to safeguard health and bolster people’s commitment to adhering to them. The mandatory Personal Locator form, completed at least 48hrs before arrival, and airport spot tests seemed an effective system to monitor the situation and keep others safe. So it was a new experience, and we can see the beginnings of meaningful change in it.

A regular favourite eating place by the BSA… 12 August 2020

But are we being too optimistic like with Santorini again? And how did this change in procedures at the sites affect the visitor’s experience in relation to sustainable sites? How can we learn from them to take the next steps?

“Statue of the Personification of the Iliad” — next to the unfortunately closed door of the great museum containing finds of the Agora under the Stoa of Attalos. Sadly some museums/areas within sites were closed. 12 August 2020

To give it a chance, we’ll start with the more negative consequences. In the worst sense, the pandemic did, expectedly, have some negative effects: with the reduced number of workers and limited visitors, some parts of ancient sites had been temporarily closed down. This was unfortunately particularly acute at sites that already receive fewer tourists: at Amphipolis (Philippi’s lesser-known cousin) for example, certain areas like the Hellenistic House were lacking the custodian customarily waiting outside to unlock the gate for visitors. But it’s not limited to small sites — the beloved museum in the Stoa of Attalos in the Athenian Agora was also closed until further notice. Albeit, this did create a positive — there were very few people milling around under the shaded portico (we had the stoa almost to ourselves during the hot hour around noon), and the sculpture section outside was still luckily open.

The remarkably almost empty Stoa of Attalos in the Athenian Agora, built by the Hellenistic Attald King Attalos as a gift of euergetism to Athens in ca. 150 BCE. 12 August 2020

Perhaps more seriously, this change also permeated to the equally fundamental aspect of getting to the sites — transportation. Many bus times and lines had been reduced, sometimes by half, with the reduced movement and slow return to transport. At Amphipolis, there were only two times at which we could get the return bus (1.30 and 5.30pm) — swimming might have been the only other way back, preferably through Xerxes’ (alas now sadly silted) canal. Going to the Royal Tombs at Aigai/Vergina, we were less lucky: the local bus from Veroia to Aigai sadly was not running at a reasonable time for our visit, so we had to take a taxi instead. On the other hand, it also meant that we had to be extra cautious with timings: once, we were at the KTEL Macedonia bus station (slightly outside of Thessaloniki) at the slightly ungodly hour of 7.50am. Luckily, overall, we didn’t experience too much trouble along the way, and our trip went well (albeit if on the way from Veroia to the Royal Tombs at Aigai our taxi almost conked out pitifully and a motley of alarms burst off when climbing the hill just after the reservoir…). As a side note, the trains in Greece are surprisingly fun — the ride from Litochoro after we had climbed Mt Olympus to Larissa was really pleasant and, since it passed right by Mt Ossa, instructive in regards to mythology (cf. Otos and Ephialtes). That is, even if they come 20 minutes late, almost giving me a self-induced heart attack. Thank goodness Charles was there.

The KTEL bus timetable from timetable from Thessaloniki to Litochoro; the circled times, as you can see, fall at about half their usual operational service capacity.

I can self-pitifully lament about the closure of sites all I want — but realistically and much more seriously, we must keep in mind the enormous revenue lost for authorities and locals, who are suffering much more. Almost 3 months of closure with no revenue and a severely limited tourist season will not only stop museums’ ability to invest or even maintain their usual operation, but will put some on the brink of survival. Some are still paying off recent renovations and other works, so the almost one-day dissolution of tourists has been a big blow and demoralising force. As a recent Jakartapost article put it, museums are slowly grinding to a fresh start, but with dejected spirits for long-term plans. We must remember them in plans forward.

To add insult to injury, it’s certainly not just the museums — the hardship extends to many other sectors, often less directly in the limelight. One must put into perspective just how much of Greece’s economy is being hit by the lack of tourism — it’s not without reason that a Deutsche Bank study placed Greece so high up in reliance on tourism at 20.6% GDP. While the archaeological sites and museums will certainly take a hit, it doesn’t stop at that — at one step removed, tour guides and operators will be highly affected as well, while the seasonal tourist shops and businesses that often rely on tourist-season income will be deprived. Many tourist shops in Monastiraki had their big metal shutters firmly down when we visited. It’s important to realise just how pervasive it is, a domino effect that is sometimes difficult to grasp.

An empty Acropolis Museum, top level with the Parthenon’s pediment and metope sculptures; 11 August 2020

Finally, there was one subtle but mixed and sad change in the educative sense, resulting from a prima facie positive change. It involved walking around the new (well, 11-years-old in June!) Acropolis museum. The Acropolis museum is often praised for being laid out to mimic the experience of walking through the 5th-century Acropolis — on the one hand, full of the dense forest of votive offerings of diverse kouroi and korai of different heights, colours and styles, which we so often cannot begin to understand in the largely bare, white, sun-scorched sanctuaries today. On the other hand, part of that experience of being on the Acropolis, at least during festivals like the Panathenaia, would have involved the hundreds of people crowding the Acropolis and seeing those monuments, weaving in and out of the sculpture as a collective wave. So part of the experience of the Acropolis museum and museums in general is, ironically, the crowds who experience it with you. That was now lost. Sure, it was nice to engage with the artefacts on a more personal level than before, but it took away from the understanding of how an ancient Athenian might have experienced it all — which the Museum did so well.

Perhaps you were more like a priest watching over the daily monuments when all others had gone. But it took away from how we can begin to envisage the experience (or at least how we think and teach about it). So in many ways there are positives and negatives mixed together; it’s a tradeoff that, for better or worse, we do not have direct control over, but can exploit in positive ways. It’s not a major point, but one which for me left a mark and changed how I thought about our subject and tried to reconstruct the sanctuary.

An empty Sounion; 13 August 2020

But this pessimism is only part, if nowhere near half, of the story. At all of the 20+ sites & museums we visited, there are many positive changes relating to sustainable tourism, on a range of scales. At the least affected end of the spectrum, there was still some sense of normality: sites and museums were back to being equipped with staff. Indeed, some of the museum staff we chatted to had been redeployed to help supervise the archaeological sites earlier that summer when they re-opened on 18 May (International Museum Day), since the government was still organising cleaning protocols and staff for the museums (later opened on 15th June). For us, that meant that at Amphipolis, the Classical Athenian walls and Bridge had their customary custodian Antonis. Sadly, however, he also told us that, as was happening more often to such custodians, he would likely be moved to help at another archaeological site next season. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the continuity.

Another great positive was that, to compensate for their 66-day closure, museums and sites were now operating on extended summer hours — meaning that they’d all usually be opened from 8 to 8. This response, partly to limit congestion at sites by allowing tourists to visit at quieter times, created other major benefits: beyond making the temptation of spending inordinate amounts of time at certain sites all the more possible, it also allowed us to take in and experience some sites at hours that we’d never seen them in before. To our surprise, the extent to which this changes the atmosphere of a site and has an educative value is remarkable: visiting the Kerameikos or Acropolis at sunset brings out a whole new light to the remains and their functions. If this sounds too wishy-washy, you can at least study more concretely how the sundials on the Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora operated!

And these efforts to limit congestion and environmental footprint were visible in other areas too. The newly installed system for purchasing tickets online and scheduling designated visiting times has been praised in its operation at 12 sites when they first re-opened. Beyond getting rid of the dreaded hassle of digging up that by-now hashed-up university card or those extra 20 cents at the bottom of your rucksack, it has helped to reduce person-to-person contact, make the process quicker, and — importantly for sustainability — spread visiting times more evenly over the day. As a complementary measure, museum authorities have capped the number of tourists within a day and within each hour. Where queues have to converge, Greece’s Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni has asked museums to provide shady reposes. Concern for the well-being of tourists is visible.

All of these points together help to facilitate the most positive change that I came across: the chance to engage and talk more directly with site managers, museum guards and the local community around the site. This happened most clearly in our encounter with the aforementioned guardian of the Athenian walls and bridge at Amphipolis — Antonis. On the one hand, he himself gave us a personal and really insightful tour of the two sites, pointing out astute observations behind each feature to make the walls (and archaeology, for two meagre ancient historians) come alive, more than any information panel could. Who knew a person, arguably the real holder of knowledge, could be so well equipped to answer our onslaught of questions so clearly? On the other hand — and this is particularly what interested me — he talked about his role in the broader running of the site and the ongoing excavations, his interest in nurturing Greece’s cultural heritage, and most importantly, the significance of the site for modern Amphipolis’ local community. It made me realise just how alive and significant these monuments are for local communities today, not just ours. How was all this possible? The extra time we had without other tourists, and the availability of Antonis, meant that we could meaningfully have this eye-opening discussion in the first place. It gave us time to appreciate the site fully, in our own way. If opportunities like these are integrated into standard visits, we can encourage tourists to engage directly with the history and preservation of the site, helping the site’s preservation and the visitor experience with the same chat.

So Amphipolis was first place where I really noticed how these positive changes can be enacted concretely. Whether it was because I was particularly attuned to the site on which I had written my dissertation (see my tweet thread), it presents a way forward for cultivating awareness of sustainable future tourism. What’s more, this general attitude of helping out each other and looking after the site was contagious, and seemed to make people more helpful and altruistic. When Charles and I were at the gymnasium of Amphipolis and dejected to see that it too was closed, a local resident of Amphipolis, who was quickly looking around after just having gone to the dentist, decided to show us around the monuments. When he learnt that both of us had written essays on Amphipolis (Kasta tomb & Alexander, Amphipolis & Brasidas respectively) and shared this underappreciated site with the world, he was all the more eager to share his own knowledge & tour of the sites. It’s these small touches, made possible in this new environment, which have the potential to leave a mark.

Just how deeply? Well, I suppose that even the recently updated range of accessories being sold in museum shops across Greece, primarily to make up for lost income, are helping to reshape Greece’s message with respect to their heritage in their own, small way!

At the North side of the Athenian/Hellenistic walls of Amphipolis, with my travel mate Charles, the dentist patient, and Antonis; 6 August 2020

Overall, therefore, it seems that people were trying to make the best of this new situation, for the long-term. Simultaneously, however, it must also be emphasised that there were certainly some people who mistook the opportunity to do good, in their own ways — while the new liberty to visit sites in new ways, more in depth, and bereft of annoying tourists was a great pro, it also allowed some visitors to venture into (or rather onto) monuments that should not be trodden on: in the Athenian Agora, we were slightly horrified at seeing someone walk right onto the tholos and take a picture, another person getting up onto the Monument of the Eponymous heroes, and another person walking in the middle of…the Middle Stoa (I suppose a legitimate excuse).

And that’s the attitude of resilience, positivity, and usefulness that the Greeks are making full use of in these difficult times.

View from Lykabettos, Salamis to the left; 12 August 2020

So far, I’ve still been pretty theoretical, providing small anecdotes to justify overarching principles. In my final section, I want to take the opposite approach and focus on three concrete examples of places we visited that were visibly shifting to sustainable tourism during the pandemic, and making tourists aware of it. Each was working towards this goal in its own way. By exploring Aigai, with its restoration of old monuments and opening of new ones to improve the tourist experience; the Acropolis archaeological site, with its new layout and information panels; and the newly-opened sections of the National Archaeological Museum, I hope to give the strongest evidence that positive change is happening on the ground and is the result of a constructive response to the opportunity offered by the pandemic.

Aigai, the land of goats

As we trudged up the steep road towards the bruised-coloured clouds covered Acropolis, I was reminded of my journey along the same path a year ago. Between the Macedonian tomb and sanctuary passed on the left and small ravine on the right, little seemed to have changed in response to Covid. Prima facie, at least. When we got to the Theatre where Philip II was allegedly murdered in dramatically mysterious circumstances (and attire) by his lover Pausanias, some things had changed.

The path up to Aigai’s Acropolis; 5 August 2020

On the one hand, we were happy to see it was opened. Last time, the gates were firmly closed — at the same time of day. This time, moreover, there was a custodian looking over the site. He dutifully gave us a paper pamphlet that not only described the site in a few bullet points, but mainly discussed the safety requirements in place to prevent covid. So we have our first change in response to the pandemic. But beyond this good more institutionalised process, which could have happened anywhere in the past few months, we also saw one major development that showed how the authorities at Aigai were taking advantage of the situation and moving towards sustainable tourism.

Specifically, they were taking the time to refurbish the layout and visitor experience up in the newly restored palace. As the sign on the cover image of this article attests to, the authorities at Aigai were using the fewer tourists caused by the pandemic to bolster their infrastructure and the visitor’s access up at the royal palace of Aigai. How does this relate to sustainable long-term tourism? The archaeological site was not only ‘restoring’ and ‘conserving’ the palace so that visitors can get a better sense of what it looked like and do so in the future (albeit conservation is still a moot topic), but were also actively incorporating and ‘promoting’ these efforts into the visitors’ experience in information panels and other techniques. Although construction had admittedly gone over its two-week deadline and the description of the palace as where ‘the historical development of Hellenism was sealed’ can be debated, the site seems to be trying to make visitors more aware and start a direct dialogue with them (from what I glimpsed of an information panel there) about big issues on accessibility, the changing afterlives of monuments, our responsibilities to them and the ethical debates behind preserving, and creating a sustainable future for them all.

Whatever form this new ‘Phase D1’ improvement will take, it will be exciting to come back to Aigai in a few years to see how they approach it. Maybe they’ll build on the recent high-tech museums funded by the Piraeus bank that integrate these discussions really well, such as the Olive in Sparta. In all the potentiality, one thing is certain: any work will increase the constant beauty of the view from the Palace down towards the sweeping, now-receded sea, which makes Aigai such a special place to visit for everyone. Whatever happens, you’ll always (as we did again) see those goats on your way up to the ‘hills of wild goats’ (Aigai, likely from αἴξ, αἰγός — goat).

The Acropolis — yet another change attributed to Pericles’ building program?

Next stop (somewhat expectedly, as a lot of major investment is understandably started at Greece’s most visited monument): the Acropolis. After its constant changes (& selections) across time, it was seeing yet another.

On the one hand, all health measures were amped up most visibly here. Expensive, two metre-tall plexiglass screens had been installed under the Propylaea, both to curtail the spread of air particles and prevent the touching of the railing. But alongside notably more guards on the hill, it was sad to see that the local guides outside the Acropolis were having a hard time to find enough people to take with them, thereby having their income deprived. At the same time, it seemed that new electronic audio-tour devices had been installed for a price, which comes with its own benefits and hopefully discusses more directly issues around sustainability and the history of the site.

Images of the Acropolis with the plexiglass installations; 11 August 2020

However, it was the one-way system here — which went the opposite way of the usual path along the North face of the temple to the East façade, instead traversing along the south face which one usually does at the end — that created the biggest change in our experience. On the one hand, it was a bit sad on the aesthetic front, as we could no longer immediately go to see the impressive Erechthion, which I always love admiring. On the other hand, however, it also brought out new aspects about the overall arrangement and topography of the site. For one, by passing by the Brauronia temple complex and the deep hole by the Parthenon’s west facade that goes down to Mycenaean remains, I got to appreciate better the Athenians’ (re)use of their past and memory, and how this could be moulded to justify narratives of their autochthony. In this light, the force of the Athenians’ use of anastylosis/ spoliation, in the form of incorporating the column drums and other architectural elements of the Old Temple of Athena destroyed by the Persians, in the Acropolis wall made more sense. Moreover, by simultaneously seeing this with the Classical remains and modern structures of the city sprawled below, I visualised better than before how the Athenians would have made the connection between these monuments and their contemporary city, evincing repercussions on identity and landscape. So this new walking layout of the Acropolis opened my eyes to a new interpretation and forced me to think about larger issues of today’s action, all while safeguarding health and limiting footfall.

The confluence of the ancient and modern cities; 11 Augustus 2020

This was further bolstered by the relatively new signs put up near the East face about the conservation on the Parthenon’s façade, and an accompanying video about it in the Acropolis museum below. These new changes on the overall Acropolis combined helped to create a new positive experience that I’ve never seen before. It nicely showed, I thought, how we can incorporate educative lessons intrinsically into the arrangement of a site designed to safeguard the monument and hygiene. Tourists can more deeply participate in the discussion on preservation, academia, and sustainability.

New openings in the National Archaeological Museum

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, some museums were also taking the moment to open new exhibitions and rearrange some of their rarely seen collections.

On the one hand, the museum had opened up a new exhibition — displaying the finds at Akrotiri in…Santorini (ring composition). What made it special was that (many of) these artefacts, if I understand correctly, are usually kept in Athens, but were often in a cordoned part of the museum. Therefore, that the museum had now not just put them on display, but also in their own exhibition and contextual-thematic space, made it a rewarding and exciting experience. So, in these challenging times, the museum was still collaborating with others and rethinking its own displays and presentation for tourists.

In the other direction, as already hinted at in the previous paragraph, the museum was also taking advantage of the lull and new circumstances to bring to light artefacts that have been closed off for ages in dark storerooms — in the hopes of creating a wider dialogue on heritage and tourism. At the NAM, this meant that the slightly enigmatic Andronianoi Bronze Hoard was recently refound and put on display (see above picture with museum sign). These ten bronze weapons, found in a Mycenaean grave shaft in Euboea in 1940, never got the full attention that they deserved when uncovered, since World War II broke out two months later. While safe, their location in the storage room was as sharp as the double-edged axe also found: they were also forgotten.

A great pity, arguably: no ordinary bronzes, the diverse array of professions and functions that these particular weapons were used for, including a carpenter (saw, razor, and double-axe), wealthy noble (bronze cup and silver sheet), and ‘warrior-burial’ occupant (swords, spearheads, daggers), makes this hoard a thought-provoking and interesting case — when we consider that they were all apparently clustered together in the same shaft tomb. So, by searching through the records again and finding these lost treasures in the storage rooms, the museum is both helping to advance scholarly debates and rethink our field, but also to reflect on its own operation and history, take advantage to update itself, and educate tourists about these processes.

This open debate provided by the sign panel and exhibition is the right step towards making tourists aware of our relationship with our cultural heritage, how we can safeguard it, and how we can inform people about it most effectively in the future. Incidentally, it’s actually another particularly interesting display in the NAM’s ‘The Unseen Museum’ project, inaugurated back in 2015. This time, however, hosted at a particularly difficult time and making good use of reflecting upon the difficulties & opportunities it created, this exhibition will hopefully continue to share more useful displays in this direction of democratising the museum and holding new conversations with the public. Whether it involved showing pictures of the museum, its storage rooms, and its layout in previous centuries, or what the best ways for museums to tackle such crises are in the future, displays like these are the right way to reframe our evidence towards sustainability and today’s issues.

And so the changes keep on taking place, in their own ways. The opposite part of the process also happened, in a way — the seemingly endless exhibition on ‘Ancient Greek Beauty’ had ended, and some artefacts were returned to their original places, modifying the experience through some museum rooms as well. It’s this attitude of new opportunities and ‘flying all over Greece’ that makes it all so exciting. Who knows what the next few years will bring…

Conclusions: Constructive changes, here to stay

Returning to the Temple of Poseidon after an afternoon swim in sea! 13 August 2020

And so the journey goes on. Other tourist services beyond sites & museums have also turned the challenges inflicted by the pandemic on its head in their own ways, one being by sharing Greece’s culture to wider audiences online. On Saturday 25 July at 6pm GMT, the National Theatre of Greece shared a world-wide and very successful live-stream of their performance of Aeschylus’ The Persians at Epidauros’ magnificent theatre— an incredible way to make a production that only 40% of the venue’s usual attendance could watch more accessible. And if that wasn’t enough, they also included English subtitles of the modern Greek. Point is: Greece is spearheading so many cultural opportunities out there, and it’s up to us to take the step to engage with them.

And as we saw with Dimitriou’s opening Greece-Is article on Santorini, countless individual Greeks are also taking action in their own ways — especially from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Younger Greek millennials like Konstantina Pyrnokoki are also urging tourists to engage with more conscious tourism in magazines like Greece Insider, by visiting “less crowded destinations”. As the title of the article suggests (“A Greek millennial shares the under-the-radar places you should visit if you’re trying to avoid tourists”),— Konstantina explicitly defines herself as a “millenial” — new sectors of Greeks are taking initiative to invest in sites in their own, up-to-date ways. For all its difficulties, these new circumstances can be an effective unifying force and call to action for all Greeks to combine ideas and make real change in nurturing a sustainable future for their tourism and country.

So the technologies developed to cope with the pandemic are here to stay. There are still some questions that are hard to answer — will they put a greater cost on the visitors? But as we've seen before, there has been a variety and range of responses. Some places like in Santorini will cater towards more upmarket tourists and increase prices. Others will keep them the same and wait it out. Others will find other ways. What emerges from all these decisions, as has by now characterised Greece’s responses for a long time, is the persevering spirit of the Greeks, their determination to do well.

Whatever happens, Greece is leading the way by introducing a revised and sustainable model of tourism for its cultural heritage, one that balances the past and future, and that prioritises information and direct engagement.

So until then, as Greece would say, stay safe — and get excited for a whole new experience next time you visit! 🏛🏺

Some museums in Greece can even be found in the… airport! Of course Charles & I went; 14 August 2020

The biggest thank you and inspiration for this article goes to my very best travel companion Charles. Without your eye-opening thoughts, amazing friendship, and calm-inducing company (and not to mention perseverance and patience in my irritating requests for photos!), this piece would be nowhere near as thoughtful as it is now. Thank you — these 11,000 words (almost a dissertation!) are dedicated to you. I suppose there are only two final things to say — first, let selfies come back into fashion — they’re the only way to take photos responsibly now! And of course, it was good to have you read my special performative diss dedication in situ for our very own little porthmeutike to Amphipolis…

To show that anything is possible if you keep at it for Ostraka, here are the first words that I wrote for this article, back in May, when it seemed that my trip wouldn't happen: ‘See phone notes: If it works and I am really fortunate, discuss both the summer school experience and my independent travel through Thessaloniki; discuss how it differs from Greece previously from last year trip, etc. Try your best & hope’.

Finally, the move towards sustainable tourism continues — around the world. Just as of 17 November 2020, the Egyptian government recently re-inaugurated the restored Shali fortress, the 13th-century Berber castle, at the ancient site of Siwah. They hope to encourage a focus especially on ecotourism and operating tourism in a sustainable and environmentally-responsible way, given Siwah’s rich natural resources and stark dissonance from the hotel resorts and development in other nature-rich sites in Egypt including the Red Sea resorts. In Greece, as of 4 December 2020, the Acropolis in Athens had not only created a paved path around its slope for wheel-chair access, thus improving accessibility immensely, but even installed a new lift for it.

Hiking together and reaching all the way to the top of the Home of the Gods @ Skolio, 2908m! 9 August 2020
Don’t laugh and risk falling off chairs while taking pictures! @ Spilios Agapitos A Zolotas, 8 August 2020

Do you have a suggestion for a future topic? Do you have an idea to share with your friends? Send us a message and follow the Durham University Classics Society on Twitter (@DUClassSoc) and Facebook (@DUClassics Society) to keep up with this blog and our other adventures!

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Welcome to Ostraka: a place to be creative, show off your talent, and collect the shards of knowledge Classics and Ancient History students at Durham have to offer. For submissions please e-mail: classics.society@durham.ac.uk or send us a message on either Facebook or Twitter.

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James Hua

James Hua

MPhil in Greek History (Oxford); past Undergraduate at Durham Classics and once Ostraka editor. Greekophile. Contact: james.hua@merton.ox.ac.uk

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