The National Historical Museum of Athens has launched a fascinating program of exhibitions, publications and events celebrating the 200th anniversary of Greece’s War of Independence, which began with a proclamation of revolution against Ottoman rule in the Peloponnese on March 17, 1821.
According to the deputy director of the museum, Maria Papanastasiou, the program aspires to “reintroduce the Greek and international public to the ideas, causes, people, events and consequences of the War of 1821”. This will be accomplished “via a full narrative that will encourage thought, conversation and creativity,” she said at a recent press conference.
The NHM was founded in 1882 and was the first museum in the newly liberated Greek state. Aiming to mark what is perhaps the most important event in the country’s modern history, it has partnered with a plethora of state agencies, private foundations and individuals.
“Talking about 1821 is like talking about a mountain that keeps growing. We are dealing with a huge number of testimonials and information, but also huge expectations. How we approach the revolution is essential to our knowledge of ourselves today, ”said Thanos Veremis, professor emeritus of political history at the University of Athens and one of the members of the supervisory committee of the program.
The entertainment program is also an opportunity to reintroduce the public to the museum, according to creative director Dimitris Papazoglou. His approach to the bicentennial, he added, is one of “charming fragmentation.”
“Given that the revolutionaries of 1821 came from very diverse backgrounds and did not have a homogeneous appearance, it would be a mistake for the visual identity of the program to be summed up by a single symbol or logo,” he explained. .
On Sunday October 13, the museum will open an exhibition on everyday life in Greece at the start of the 19th century and the important events of the War of Independence told through dioramas using a series of Playmobil figures designed for the event.
The program includes two photo exhibitions and publications of Greek translations of 19th century texts by Philhellenes. It ends in March 2021 with an exhibition at the Old Parliament on the revolution and its impact, with a focus on its heroes and on the social and ideological changes that influenced the dominant mentalities before and after 1821.
Sections of this show will be on tour and each of the different venues will add to the exhibits their own, highlighting how different parts of the country were affected by the Greek Revolution.
It’s Easter week, 1819, and I’m in Parga, which came under British rule in 1814. After several attempts to sack it, Ali Pasha has finally found a way to get his hands on the fortified seaside town. Epirote: he bought it from the Briton for 150,000 pounds sterling. The agreement was sealed with the colonial governor of the Ionian Islands, Thomas Maitland, a famous Turkophile, and signed in Ioannina on May 17, 1817.
One of Ali Pasha’s conditions was that the inhabitants be evicted from the city. His order must be executed on Good Friday. The streets are full of women running wild with babies in their arms, old men and women crying on their doorsteps, and men laden like oxen with family goods. The Pargans leave, but they refuse to leave behind the remains of their ancestors to remain buried in the conquered soil. They dig them up and burn them in the main square so that they can at least take some of their ashes with them.
I see it all happening. No, I am not in a time machine. I am on the first floor of the National History Museum at the “Refugees from Parga” exhibition, during a preview of the Playmobil diorama exhibition.
The show aims to present an original, eye-catching and enlightened approach to the period that is primarily aimed at children. Needless to say, dioramas, in which the characters are portrayed by Playmobil figures, will certainly do the trick.
It consists of 20 dioramas of different sizes, made up of nearly 1,500 characters in scenes from everyday life in Greece at the start of the 19th century, and snapshots from the War of Independence of 1821.
Besides the exodus of the Pargans, other important chapters that come to life include the Great Oath of the underground revolutionary organization Filiki Eteria; Filiki Etairia leader Alexandros Ypsilantis crosses the Prut river to gain Russian support; one of the first victories against the Turks during the siege of Tripolitsa; a naval battle between the Greek and Turkish fleets; the death of the influential priest Papaflessas at the Battle of Maniaki, and Ibrahim kissing his head as a sign of post mortem respect; and the Mesolongi Exodus.
At the same time, more than 80 protagonists of the War of Independence – Greeks, Philhellenes and Turks, men and women – who played an important role in the way the events unfolded are represented by Playmobil figures, with a description of who they were and what did they do.
The exhibition is designed and supervised by three curators from the National Historical Museum: art historian Natassa Kastriti, archaeologist Panagiota Panariti and historian Regina Katsimardou.
“The idea arose out of the work of Petros Kaminiotis,” they say, referring to a young artist who created a series of personalized Playmobil figures dressed in traditional Greek folk costumes.
“The inspiration for the composition of the dioramas and for the use of Playmobil figures to represent historical figures came mainly from works of art – prints and paintings – from the beginning of the 19th century in the museum’s collection and elsewhere”, they add.
The start of the revolution takes place in the Peloponnese, with the classic scene of Metropolitan Germanos of Patra raising the banner with the cross at the monastery of Agia Lavra.
Historians have disputed this account of the declaration of revolution, although it is still the one that prevails in history textbooks.
“The line followed by the textbooks was dictated by the prints we have from that time,” Kastriti explains. “Without trying to ‘fix’ the historical narrative, we have tried to disengage from the mainstream approach in order to give visitors food for thought.”
The exhibition begins with a section on Philhellenism and a representation of the Parthenon. There are no minarets on the Acropolis, as was the case during the Turkish occupation, and the citadel was not damaged by the bombardments of Francesco Morosini. Rather, he is depicted as he was in ancient times.
“It is shown in an idealized version, because that is how the Philhellenes of the time wanted to see it, in their minds, when they visited the Parthenon,” says Panariti.
The story of the revolution ends with the assassination of Ioannis Kapodistrias in Nafplion in 1831.
The dioramas were built by collectors Giorgos Angelidis, Denis Vagopoulos, Angelos Giakoumatos and Vassiliki Fato, while the historical figures were made by Stelios Mylonas. They all worked on the pro bono project, while Playmobil sponsored the show and donated the materials needed for the constructions.
The show should be a success. “We see this as an opportunity to change the image of the museum,” says Katsimardou. “Of course, schoolchildren know this, but we don’t want it to be associated only with compulsory school trips which can be, admittedly, sometimes boring. We want to show our visitors, young and old, that history can be fun and that we are not the padded shirts they may think we are.
The exhibition runs until May 2020 at the National History Museum (13 Stadiou, tel. 210.323.7617, www.nhmuseum.gr). The opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday 8:30 am to 2:30 pm. The Playmobil figures created for this show are not for sale at the museum or in stores.