Is The Acropolis Museum Losing the Numbers Game?



Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece

An opinion piece by Dr James Beresford* – Since opening in June 2009, the €129 million Acropolis Museum has become the most popular museum in Greece. It has also become the embodiment – made manifest in glass and concrete – of the Greek desire to see the Marbles of the Elgin collection returned from the British Museum to Athens. Unfortunately, however, it has become painfully clear that the Museum has failed to attract anywhere near the numbers of visitors that were confidently predicted in the run-up to its inauguration.

In an interview in Time magazine in 2007, Professor Dimitris Pandermalis, the current President of the Museum, claimed there would be more than two million visitors passing through the galleries of the Museum each year. Writing in the Museums Journal the previous October, art historian Tom Flynn, a leading advocate for the return of the Marbles to Greece, also noted: ‘The old Acropolis Museum currently attracts around 1.5 million people each year. The Greeks hope their New Acropolis Museum will at least double that figure.’ Unfortunately, however, the Museum has consistently failed to fulfill such expectations. Over its first four years, the attendance figures compiled by the Museum staff recorded a total of 5,440,343 visitors – considerably fewer than the eight million its President predicted, and less than half the 12 million postulated by Dr Flynn.

It is, perhaps, unfair to deride the vastly inflated visitor numbers that Greek officials and commentators were guesstimating for the Acropolis Museum prior to the economic tsunami that would sweep across Greece. However, even in the summer of 2009, as the Museum was due to open its doors to the public and when the economic crisis was already underway, the then Culture Minister, Antonis Samaras, was still keen to use the predicted attendance at the museum to push for the return of the Marbles from London, and it was noted in Athens Plus: ‘The museum is also expected to … [attract] some 10,000 visitors a day and about 2 million every year, an in-flux that Culture Minister Antonis Samaras believes will shift public opinion in favor of the Parthenon Marbles’ return’ (19 June, 2009, p.4.)

Despite the hopes pinned on the Museum by the current Greek Prime Minister, when the nose-dive in the Museum’s attendance was first publicised last month in the Museums Journal, international campaigners lobbying on behalf of the return of the Marbles to Greece were quick to argue that visitation numbers had no relevance when applied to the repatriation debate concerning the Marbles. It is certainly true that legal, historical and ethical claims are equally, if not more, important to the repatriation campaign. Nonetheless, even the Acropolis Museum’s official end-of-year ‘Highlights Report’ published in the summer of 2011 was clear that ‘Museum visitation numbers are a measure of the Museum’s success.’ If the President and Board of the Museum are sticking to this criterion then, with visitor numbers between 50–75% lower than initially expected, it is difficult to regard the Museum as anything but a failure. If there is any truth in the old proverb ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, then it seems the public appetite for the cultural treasures contained within the Acropolis Museum has been woefully overestimated.

Perhaps of more concern than the recession-hit attendance totals is the rapid tail-off in visitors over the course of the Museum’s short lifetime. During its first 12 months of operation (June 2009 – May 2010), visitor numbers to the new museum were a creditable 1,950,539, falling just short of the two million anticipated by Professor Pandermalis. However, an increase in the entrance costs from €1 to €5, the deepening effects of the recession, and a decline in curiosity as the novelty of the new museum wore off all had a debilitating effect on visitor numbers. Between the first and second years of operation there was a massive drop of 640,680 visitors. The Museum’s own attendance records indicate this fall-off has continued over the last two years, albeit slowing considerably.

More worrying are figures compiled by the Art Newspaper which indicate an accelerating decline in visitors to the Acropolis Museum. Beginning in 2010 (the first full calendar year in which the museum was open to the pubic), there was a fall of 111,018 visitors over the course of 2011, while this drop more than doubled in 2012. Equally unsettling is the plummeting position of the Acropolis Museum when compared against the attendance of other international museums. Reaching 25th position in 2010, the Acropolis Museum dropped 13 places in 2011, and an additional 21 places in 2012, finishing last year in 59th position – a fall of 34 places in just two years.

Table 1

Year

Visitor

Numbers

Decline in Visitors From Previous Year

June 2009 – May 2010

1,950,539

June 2010 – May 2011

1,309,859

640,680

June 2011 – May 2012

1,143,886

165,973

June 2012 – May 2013

1,036,059

107,827

New Acropolis Museum. Official visitor numbers spanning June 2009-May 2013. (Figures courtesy of the New Acropolis Museum.)

Table 2

Year

Visitor

Numbers

Decline of Visitors From Previous Year

World Ranking (Based on Visitor Numbers)

2010

1,355,720

25

2011

1,244,702

111,018

38

2012

1,020,920

223,782

59

Art Newspaper. Visitor numbers for the New Acropolis Museum, 2010-2012.

Such results differ radically from those achieved this May when The Times ‘commissioned a panel of inveterate museum-goers’ to compile a list of the top 50 international museums in which the New Acropolis Museum took third place, right behind the British Museum. (Top of the list was the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.) However, rather than follow the lead of the nine art critics, academics and journalists who compiled The Times list, the paying public has voted with its feet, delivering a damning verdict on the Acropolis Museum.

The fall-off in visitors to the Acropolis Museum must be addressed. With Greece still on its economic knees, everyone hopes the Museum can be turned around and become a popular and financially lucrative attraction. At present the Acropolis Museum barely manages to cover its annual operating costs of €7 million; any further fall in the numbers of paying visitors coming through its doors will see the expensive Museum becoming a further drain on the already depleted Greek public purse. Lack of revenue may also place important conservation projects carried out within the Museum at risk and threaten the jobs of some of the 200-or-so Museum employees.

There are, nevertheless, grounds for optimism. The decline in visitor numbers should be reversed in 2013 as the Greek tourist sector reports a boom in international holidaymakers who have flocked to the country throughout the summer. Political upheavals affecting countries such as Egypt and Turkey have also redirected many tourists to Greece. That said, the current instability of neighbouring Mediterranean countries hardly guarantees a bright future for the New Acropolis Museum.

Professor Pandermalis declined to be interviewed regarding the poor attendance of his museum. Nonetheless, he issued a statement that noted: ‘The Acropolis Museum is proud to have welcomed the highest number of visitors in a Greek museum despite the enormous economic crisis in Greece.’ The statement went on to add that, ‘Having already placed the visitor at center stage, the Museum’s main goal is to continue to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors through inspiring programs, all of which are published on the website and to offer more quality services using a variety of approaches.’

The President of the Acropolis Museum is correct to emphasise the tough economic conditions as the primary cause for the relatively low visitor numbers. Nevertheless, despite the Professor’s reassuring words, there is a pressing need to examine the possibility that visitation to the New Acropolis Museum has been undermined by the intrusion of politics into the cultural arena. The Museum was, after all, designed and constructed principally to function as a propaganda tool to aid Greek politicians in their quest to reclaim Elgin’s trophies: the focus on the Museum’s proximity to the Acropolis rock, its visual link to the Parthenon, and the natural Attic light flooding through the galleries, were deemed necessary strings to add to the bow of those petitioning for the return of the Marbles. These considerations led to the Museum running vastly over budget and delayed construction for many years. Yet despite the vast amount of money invested in the Acropolis Museum, the display of the objects within the galleries – including the battered rejects of the Scottish Earl’s collecting mania – can, frankly, be rather dull, especially for those visiting with children. Labeling of many of the artefacts is also frequently uninformative or overly simplistic. As such, while there is no doubt that the completed Museum is a wonderful venue in which to present the archaeological treasures of the Athenian Acropolis, and it clearly appeals to many art critics, as well as others with a professional interest in museums. Does more attention therefore need to be paid to providing interactive facilities, with greater emphasis placed on more family-friendly displays, which might inspire both Greeks and international tourists to visit – and revisit – the Acropolis Museum?

Should deterioration in visitor numbers continue then the Acropolis Museum will soon begin hemorrhaging finances, leading to a further drain on the public purse over and above the €129 million that was expended during the construction process. The Museum not only risks becoming a money pit, and a long-term drain on the finances of the Hellenic state, but failure to boost visitor numbers also risks branding the Museum a one trick pony; a building primarily intended to repatriate the Marbles from London rather than meaningfully engage with the paying public. As such, there needs be cold, hard analysis of the fall-off in visitor numbers in an effort to identify the underlying problems and formulate strategies to turn the situation around.

Greece has some of the finest archaeologists and culture professionals in Europe. If the best of these are promoted to positions of influence within the Acropolis Museum, and are given free rein to work unencumbered by political interference, they can undoubtedly turn the situation around. Any members of the board and staff of the Museum found to have been assigned to their positions through political patronage need to be replaced with meritocratic appointments of young and dynamic Greek archaeologists and museologists. If such action is taken, then the Acropolis Museum can begin to deliver the visitor numbers originally prophesied.

*James Beresford is an archaeologist and specialist in ancient maritime history. He is currently based in Athens writing a book dealing with the effects of the economic crisis on the Greek heritage sector. Until the summer he was Assistant Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. He has also taught in Japan, the United Arab Emirates as well as the United Kingdom, and was editor of Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology. 

 


6 COMMENTS

  1. I heard attendance was very good this year. Why stop up to May and not include the summer season as well?

  2. we loved it when we went and we WILL go again AND we have recommended it to family and friends who have been to Ellada

  3. It might be that the museum’s fiscal calendar ends in May and they only publicizes once it finishes compiling the data. It is a shame that it doesn’t include 2013 summer data. In 2012/2011 Greece had face a tremendous drop in tourism due to all the protests.

    A disturbing fact is that the author makes no mention of the museum’s revenue. An increase from 1EU to 5EU is very acceptable and may outweigh the drop in tourism.

  4. Acropolis museum was a big disappointment. The only thing it has going for it is the amazing view of the Parthenon and the Acropolis. I found the display of the limited number of pieces uneven and unimaginative. The bare concrete walls and the corporate light fixtures left me with a sense of unfinished business… perhaps this is an esoteric way of saying bring us the rest of the marbles and we will finish it? They could have rebuilt a replica of the Parthenon inside this structure with the great statue of Athena and all the others. With spiraling walkways around it all the way to the top in order to give a true sense of the size and magnitude of the Parthenon. Visitors could have also walked in it and around it; that would be breathtaking. Perhaps they simply ran out of money or it was wasted. Two thumbs down. The extremely weather beaten remnants of the limited sculptures on display only serve to showcase our failure to protect them from the ravages of air pollution.
    I spent many happy hours in the National Museum but I could not wait to leave the Acropolis museum.

  5. “a one trick pony; a building primarily intended to repatriate the Marbles from London rather than meaningfully engage with the paying public.”

    THIS. I visited several museums and archaeological sites when I was in Athens, starting with the Benaki and finishing with the National. I loved the Benaki, and enjoyed many others, but I found the New Acropolis Museum stark, uninformative and unwelcoming. We were lucky to have gone on a day when they did discounted tickets, because it certainly wasn’t worth the full price admission. Going to see the Parthenon itself, despite the scaffolding, and the absence of sculptures, was a much more pleasurable day.

    I’ve since gone to the British Museum to see the Elgin marbles, and a) it was free and b) more engagingly displayed.

  6. Just some comments from my perspective:

    1. I don’t think ANY museum in Greece has the potential to stand against any major museum in the rest of Europe (Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Rome etc.
    etc.). Athens and pretty much the whole of Greece is an unreachable destination
    for most of ordinary Europeans. For a British person, it costs at least five
    times less to travel to anywhere in Spain and then be willing to spend on
    cultural things. And it costs about the same money to travel to Thailand
    or Australia… If I was a Northern European, myself I would have Greece on the
    bottom of my list if there at all. And if I would make it some day, I would not
    be able to afford any single penny for museums and stuff. Moreover, as stated
    in the article, the domestic audience is totally worn out and can’t be relied
    upon for spending in anything whatsoever.

    2. I agree with other comments that the museum itself is not very informative and if you don’t have somebody with you that knows mythology and history good enough, you do not get much. There should be much more interaction and information available throughout. There should be also narrated stories related to each and every item exhibited in many languages that you would hit a number or something and get the story on your earphones and so on. (They may actually have this by now – I was there 2 years ago) And yes, definitely there should be replicas to fill in the empty spaces. There should also be famous sayings by philosophers etc. in special rooms to complement the experience.

    3. This bunker-like concrete interior
    may be simplistic, cheap to build and admittedly functional but at the same
    time is very cold and does not leave the best of impressions or reminiscence or
    desire to revisit. This is of course only my opinion.

    4. I wonder how much this museum is
    promoted at all. Have they offered super discounts to school kids from Europe
    and beyond (in conjunction with the rest of the museums)? Has the admission fee
    been part of hotel/travel/work trip packages? As far as I remember it is not
    even included in the day deal with the Acropolis hill/Zeus temple etc. This is bad
    management (again in my opinion).

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