|Gold ring seal, Antheia, Messinia. Date: 14th or 13th century.|
It's been all over the news: last week two armed robbers broke into the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, tied up on the only on-site guard, smashed and made off with 77 artifacts dating back more than 3,000 years. It was the second devastating blow to Greece's cultural heritage in the midst of their economic crisis after paintings from the National Museum were stolen last month. Due to extreme budget cuts, funds for security have been halved in the last few years, leaving Greece's cultural institutions incredibly vulnerable to theft and looting. So, far the case at Olympia remains at a dead end, made even more complicated by the fact that it appears the police and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism are releasing differing information about their understanding of the heist.
However, the most concerning aspect of this case for me is that due to the embarrassment of the break-in, culture minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation to prime minister Lucas Papademos. Papademos rejected it yesterday, which could be both a good and bad thing. The entire situation is giving me flashbacks to around this time last year when Zahi Hawass resigned as from the antiquities department in Egypt after the many cases of break-ins and looting through the revolution and limited resources to deal with it. At the time, Hawass blamed the lack of resources and security for his inability to prevent chaos. He said, "I cannot stay in Egypt and see antiquities being stolen when I cannot do anything to stop it! This situation is not for me!" The problem is that there very probably were things he could have done to better prevent mass looting of archaeological sites and the looting at the national museum, including reaching out to international organizations and mobilizing the kinds of youth who locked arms in front of the museum. With Greece currently in a similar situation, it might have been wise for Geroulanos to learn from Egypt's tragedies and mistakes and do what he could to deal more creative and proactively. For some perspective, this situation compared with how Bosnia is dealing with their current funding issues is particularly embarrassing: while museum workers in Bosnia have historically dodged bullets to save their artifacts, have not been paid for six months, and are taking on part-time jobs to support themselves while supporting their museums, Greece's culture minister has thrown up his hands after two high-profile (and therefore easier to track down) museum thefts.
I personally see these resignations as cowardly and ineffective. (Though, in the case of Hawass, it was time to get rid of him anyway.) Maybe I'm just young and naive, but to me Geroulanos's resignation was essentially an admission that he was unwilling to support his country throughout this difficult time in any way his government position may allow. Geroulanos is still minister for now, but I hope that a much stronger replacement can be found as soon as it is financially or politically possible.