Fascinating photo exhibit at National Archaeological Museum chronicles how precious artifacts were hidden and secured during WWII.
By: Chryssoula Katsarou
National Archaeological Museum saved priceless works of art
On Sunday April 27, 1941 German troops occupied Athens. The following morning, the German officers, entered the National Archaeological Museum to survey the treasures. Imagine their shock when they discovered that the building was empty! They did not find any trace of the thousands of precious exhibits that adorned the country’s largest museum. Instead of statues, the few archaeologists and guardians who were shifting at that time, stood in front of them, frozen like they were the statues. To the officers’ persistent questions, they answered enigmatically that antiquities are where everybody knows they are: under the ground. And it was true. The antiquities had in fact returned underground – to the only ark in the world where they would be safe.
This a short version of a great story regarding the long and glorious history of the National Archaeological Museum which organized, with the assistance of the French Archaeological School and the Department for the Management of the National Archives of Monuments, Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods, an exhibition of historical photography titled “In the shadow of the great war: capturing memories of museums before and after the occupation”.
Pre-planning at its finest
The fascinating story of hiding and thus protecting our ancient legacy actually begins during the years before the war, since there was increasing worry that the declaration of war was near. The people of the Ministry of Culture and the archeologists of the two museums discussed possible ways to protect the statues, especially from bombings.
Τhe actual alarm sounded with the declaration of war whereupon the Archaeological Service reacted quickly. A letter sent out on November 11, 1940 to all local sections, issued technical instructions “for the protection of antiquities in the various museums from air-raid danger”. These included two ways of protecting bulky and non-transportable exhibits: The first one was “to cover the statue with sandbags after protecting it with wooden scaffolding like the sample” and the second one, which was deemed more effective, was to bury the statues in the floor of the hall or the courtyard of the museum or in protected courtyards and basements of public institutions.
By a ministerial decree, the Committee of Hide and Secure of the statues was organized, heading by three judges of Areios Pagos (the Supreme Court of Greece) and members of the Archaeological Society; the Secretary, George Oikonomos; the temporary director of the museum Anastasios Orlandos; Professor Spyridon Marinatos; the curators Yiannis Miliadis, Semni Karouzou, and Ioanna Konstantinou; and some ministry engineers and architects. Volunteers, such as the director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute Otto Walter, the British archaeologist Allan Wace, and academician Spyros Jacobidis, who was then studying archaeology, were added to the group.
Hiding the treasure
Semni Karouzou wrote about the plans.
“Very early in the morning, those who were responsible for hiding the statues were gathering in the museum. They were leaving night to go to their homes.”
The statues were kept according to their size and importance. The larger ones were lined up standing in deep ditches that had been dug in the floors of the north halls of the museum. These ditches were reminiscent of mass graves. Improvised wooden cranes were used to lower the statues into the ditches, and were handled carefully by the museum’s technicians.
Semni Karouzou’s writings continued.
“If no damage was done to the marbles, despite these movements, it is mainly due to the fact that the chief of the craftsmen’s was then, until the first years after the war, the old, experienced and dedicated sculptor of the Greek museum, Andreas Panagiotakis.”
The other smaller crafts were placed in wooden crates coated with wax or tar paper for the fear of humidity which the workers moved into the semi-underground warehouses of the museum. Subsequently, the rooms were filled up to the ceiling with dry sand to resist ruptures to the concrete ceiling in the event of bombing.
At the same time, the museum’s precious catalogs, such as the books of its antiquities and its documentation, were also boxed. These boxes were handed over to the Treasurer of the Bank of Greece on November 29, 1940.
On April 17, 1941, at the central branch of the same bank, the protocol of delivery and receipt of wooden boxes with gold and the other valuable finds of Mycenae was signed. And thus, ended a six-month quest to secure the wealth of the country’s largest museum.
Inside the exhibit
The exhibition presents archive images of the exhibition sites of the National Archaeological Museum and the Archaeological Museum of Delphi before the war, as well as photographic and administrative evidence from the work of concealing and protecting the ancient objects of the two museums during WWII.
All the photos come from the museum’s photographic record. According to the director of the National Archaeological Museum, Maria Lagogianni, photos that captured moments from the “laborious and heroic effort” to hide the statues.
The exhibition runs through December 8, 2017 in the café of the National Archaeological Museum, 44 Patission Street, Athens 10682.
Viewing hours Monday: 13:00-20:00, Tuesday- Sunday: 09:00- 16:00. Admission is €5.
Find more info at the National Archaeological Museum website or call +30 21 3214 4800.
Chryssoula Katsarou was born and raised in Athens. She studied journalism and international relations in Athens and in Leeds, UK. She wrote for the newspaper, Ethnos, for 17 years. For several years, Chryssoula translated books — mainly crime fiction — for the publishing house, “Kaktos”. She loves books, cinema, world politics, and most of all, a good dinner with good friends and good wine. She and her husband have two children.