Ancient Greek statues ‘speak’ of migration and multiculturalism at the Melbourne Museum

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By Mary Sinanidis.

The National Archaeological Museum (NAM) is housed in an immaculate building surrounded by now-derelict homes that were once neoclassical mansions of well-to-do Athenians. In much the same way, the Melbourne Museum is a short stroll from graffiti-clad Fitzroy, the closest Melbourne has to anarchist Exarcheia which flanks the NAM. And perhaps that’s the reason why the 44 Ancient Greek artefacts on display at the Melbourne Museum seemed quite at home at the launch of the Open Horizons display even though 20 of them had never left the Mediterranean.

Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews told visitors on Thursday that the connection runs deep. “We are all connected to Ancient Greece. We are all connected through the amazing and generous bequests that Ancient Greece has in turn given each and every one of us right across the modern world,” he said.

“That is never truer than in a city like Melbourne where you can’t imagine a modern Victoria without the contribution of such a significant diaspora.”

Victoria’s Multicultural Affairs Minister, Ros Spence, told The Greek Herald how important the display was for culture but also for multiculturalism.

“It is really important to be able to share culture. This display is an opportunity for all Victorians to be able to experience Greek culture right here in Melbourne. This is incredibly important,” she said, while also reminiscing of her own visit to NAM a few years ago. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d already seen some of these artefacts.”

Her personal favourite was the exhibition’s centrepiece, a 400-kilogram sculpture of the head of Greek god Zeus. “You can’t imagine the size that the original statue must have been. You can see details, the holes at the top of the hairline,” she said.

Former minister Jenny Mikakos’ interest was drawn by the unassuming female figure on a funeral votive. It spoke to her because it was a “depiction of an ordinary Greek woman, not a goddess”. It was incidental that the woman was described as a worshipper of the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, healing and rebirth.

Her own rebirth from politician to philanthropist has been spectacular. “Can I interview you about that?” I ask.

“Not yet,” she says. “Soon. When I have something to announce, maybe.”

When she does announce something, there’s always a gift in it. Like the time she went to Greece for a vay-cay in 2019 and thought to pay Dr Mendoni a visit, just days after the Greek Minister of Culture had assumed office. The two women had a chat, some coffee and by the end of it, Ms Mikakos secured the antiquities currently on display as a “souvenir” for Melbourne.

Despite being on different sides of the political field, the two women clicked. So much so that, despite a full schedule for the Greek delegation, Dr Mendoni could not leave without a 1:1 with Ms Mikakos on Friday to reminisce and reconnect.

They may talk about the exhibition, which Dr Mendoni said shows how “sea routes have played a role in migration. We owe everything to the sea. The sea and the light and the sun.”

“From early antiquity, Greeks turned their gaze to the open horizon of the sea and travelled as seafarers, corallists and traders along the route of the Mediterranean and beyond,” Dr Mendoni said, adding that Greece is “a small country but its tradition immense.”

The symbolism of the exhibition is not lost on Greek Australians. Chair of the Community Advisory Group, Bill Papastergiadis, told The Greek Herald that the exhibition “resonates deeply with the Greek diaspora in Australia” for many reasons.

“With the theme of the exhibition centring on Ancient Greeks as travellers and their gaze being set across the seas, as Greek Australians we too have understood how culture is shaped in one’s journey in a faraway place,” he said, thanking the state government along with Members of Parliament Steve Dimopoulos and Kath Theophanous for their “significant investment in making this exhibition happen”.

“The partnership with the Melbourne Museum is ground-breaking and hopefully this is the start of continuous cultural exchanges between Greece and Australia,” he said.

Archbishop Makarios and clergy were in full force to admire Ancient Greek antiquities predating Christianity, while visiting Evzones represented modern Greece showing the layers of Greek history and the country’s evolution to what it is today. 

*Open Horizons: Ancient Greek Journeys and Connections can be viewed at the Melbourne Museum until Sunday 14 August.

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