Greek Australian Dialogue Series- CEO reveals vision for the Benaki Museum

Another successful and compelling Greek Australian Dialogue Series took place last night, featuring guest speaker Mr Haris Siampanis, the Chief Executive Officer of the Benaki Museum.

The Zoom conference was organised by Mr Paul Nicolaou, the Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry Business Leaders Council and Mr Christos Karras, the Greek Consul General in Sydney.

The Benaki Museum established and endowed in 1930 by Antonis Benakis in memory of his father Emmanuel Benakis, is housed in the Benakis family mansion in downtown Athens, Greece. The museum houses Greek works of art from the prehistorical to the modern times, an extensive collection of Asian art, hosts periodic exhibitions and maintains a state-of-the-art restoration and conservation workshop. Although the museum initially housed a collection that included Islamic art, Chinese porcelain and exhibits on toys, its 2000 re-opening led to the creation of satellite museums that focused on specific collections, allowing the main museum to focus on Greek culture over the span of the country’s history.

The virtual meeting was an opportunity for Greek Australian business leaders to learn how the Benaki Museum is managing and responding to covid-19, as well as the Museum’s aims and objectives.

“Greek Australians have managed to preserve the Greek identity, the Greek way of life and Greek culture. In my opinion they are today one of the most vibrant parts of the Greek diaspora,” Mr Christos Karras said, which is evident by the hundreds of Greek community organisations across Australia.

“Greek culture remains alive here in Australia and so does the interest in cultural life in Greece including its museums. Museums can be educational, entertaining and enlightening.”

The Benaki Museum is “one of the few if not the only museum in Greece that showcases all the eras of Greek culture and history, while at the same time recognising and celebrating the foreign influences on Greek culture,” Mr Christos Karras concluded.

On his part, Mr Haris Siampanis spoke about the Museum’s development of Greek culture which supports knowledge, research and freedom of expression.

During his talk he pointed out that this year has been difficult due to pandemic, which saw the closure of museums for three months. During this period, the Benaki Museum had 0 revenue from tickets, 0 revenue from the physical shops, 0 revenue from educational programs or rentals in their premises and they had to postpone many of their exhibitions.  “Now that the museums have reopened our income sources are gradually recovering, but slowly,” he said, noting that income from tickets is low due to social distancing limitations and the Museum’s main fundraising events have been postponed until the New Year.

Siampanis also made a special mention about the biggest exhibition that the Benaki Museum will ever hold- the exhibition of 1821, which will be presented in March 2021. The exhibition will showcase not only the events of the revolution but also what took place before it, as well as the creation of the Modern Greek state. In addition to the exhibition, the Museum is developing an interactive augmented reality program. “Our plan is to showcase this program not only across Greece but globally,” he said.

Benaki Museum

A number of attendees had the opportunity to ask Mr Haris Siampanis and Mr George Manginis (Academic Director of the Benaki Museum) questions.

When asked by Professor Karalis, the Sir Nicholas Laurantus Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies and Chair of the Modern Greek department at the University of Sydney, how and if the events in Australian can be brought to the attention of Greeks themselves, Mr George Manginis responded: “We have had exhibitions and events presenting Australian creativity. We have worked with the Hellenic Museum in Melbourne as well in presenting that to the Greek public before. But I feel like there is room for more systematic work on this. We definitely plan to do more on that. We started already 15 years ago when we had an exhibition of an Australian artists at the Benaki, so we go back a long way on this. And also we tried with the Hellenic Museum to organise a music event this summer, but the pandemic unfortunately cancelled that. So yes there is definitely a wish for this.”

Regarding augmented reality and digital plans for the museum, the Chief Executive Officer of the Benaki Museum stated that “We live in a global world. The Benaki is a live example of this. (…) The easiest way to do that [intercultural dialogue] is through the internet, online applications, 3Ds and in my point of view that’s also the easiest way to attract younger audiences in our museum and make interesting content. (…) That’s the way to tell your story in a way very compelling and in a way that makes sense for global citizens.”

Mr Siampanis also reiterated that education is in the Benaki Museum’s mission statement. “In my point of view- there is no museum if there is no educational element. We want to educate not only the Greeks outside Greece, but all the people who want to learn about the Greek history. But this needs to come with a very conscious effort which has to do with the resources that we already have as a museum.”

Concerning the digitalisation of the museum such as e-tickets and digital access, Mr Siampanis noted that measures were sped up due to covid. “My point of view- the physical presence cannot be substituted by technology. However there is a way to bring people, to engage people and provide content in places that they couldn’t have access with another way.”

The closing remarks and vote of thanks were given by Mrs. Amanda Kailis, President of the Hellenic Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (HACCI) Western Australia. “I am very glad that the dialogue about Greece is about the creativity and innovations of Greece and Greeks within Greece. It was very informative to learn about the steps and measures you have taken for the Benaki Museum, as well as being one for the oldest private museums in Greece but also one of the most innovative museums, one that brings its experience to people all over the world and I would like to thank you for that and for sharing the way Benaki is doing that.”

“I agree with the remarks that museums are not just about halls now, but they are footprints present in the modern world and in these changing and difficult times I think museums like Benaki have a very, very important role in the progression of humanity,” she added.

Concluding, Mr Siampanis thanked everyone for attending the ZOOM conference and on his final point said: “Cultural institutions need to foster their bonds and need to work together. The only way forward is through partnerships. This way they can become sustainable and successful. We need to work together. We have the global audience but only unless we work together we will be able to initiate it.”

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