‘Skeletons in the closet’: Forgetting the past in an urban present

by Kostas Arvanitis, Museology, School of Arts, Histories and Cultures

The past is closer to us than we sometimes think, says Susan Pearce (1990) and this cannot be truer than in Greek cities. A number of them, built layer upon layer on medieval, hellenistic, classical or prehistoric settlements have ‘deep roots’ in the land they occupy. These ‘roots’ are often visible in the material traces of past environments, such as archaeological monuments, sites or remains, that still stand or lie around the city.

In recent years, archaeological and museological research and practice in Greece has been concerned with the display in situ of such antiquities. However, this is often limited mainly to high profile sites, such as the antiquities excavated in the construction of the Athens Metro (images 1 and 2), or in the foundations of the new Acropolis Museum (images 3 and 4). Their preservation and display have been seen as the contemporary city ‘paying respect’ to the ancient city; a statement that today’s urban development won’t scrape away the material evidence of a shared history and identity. The state, through its strict legislation and powerful Archaeological Service turns the in situ antiquities to permanent reminders of a cultural and national past. In turn these ‘celebrity’ antiquities located in their busy and visible public spaces become the signposts of public memory.

Image 1: Displays of antiquities in Athens Metro

Image 2: In situ preservation and display of antiquities in Athens Metro (flickr: artandmale)

Image 3: Acropolis Museum, Athens

Image 4: Archaeological remains at the Acropolis Museum, Athens

 

However, in my research I have been focusing on archaeological sites or remains that exist ‘out of sight’, beneath modern developments (usually blocks of flats) in Greek cities. Those archaeological remains are found during construction processes and due to their archaeological significance they are preserved in situ, usually in basements of buildings. The local Archaeological Departments of the Ministry of Culture are responsible for safeguarding, preserving and monitoring the remains, the majority of which are not accessible to the public. In fact, the ‘public’ (locals, visitors or tourists) may be unaware of the remains’ existence. Locked away in basements (image 5), hidden behind walls or underground (image 6), or blending in everyday environments (images 7 and 8), these antiquities become almost ‘invisible’. They are also invisible inasmuch they are not published in e.g. guidebooks, museum exhibitions, etc.

Image 5: Roman remains in a basement (Veroia, Greece)

Image 6: Tomb under a street (Veroia, Greece)

 

Image 7: Roman remains in a furniture shop (Veroia, Greece)

Image 8: Roman remains in a furniture shop (Veroia, Greece)

This notion of the remains’ ‘invisibility’ links to issues, processes and practices of urban, public and national memory and identity construction and professional ethics in archaeological and heritage management. However, this process of making the remains invisible does not function like e.g. the public veiling of the Reichstag (image 9), whereby the veiling functioned ‘as a strategy to make visible, to unveil, to reveal what was hidden when it was visible’ (Huyssen, 2003: 37). It does not form a space for reflection, contemplation and public memory; quite the opposite. The act of covering, hiding or ‘locking away’ the archaeological remains represents an act of separating them from their metonymic relationship with a heritage past and so actively excludes them from the city’s and nation’s ‘social and cultural memory bank’. Ultimately it is an act of selectively forgetting (about them), even before they become memory.  If memory is a mode of representation (Huyssen 2003), then the hidden away archaeological remains are excluded both from memory and their effect on the self-representation of residents and professionals alike.

Image 9: Christo, Wrapping of the Reichstag (Image from http://itsourplayground.com/29/memory_difice)

But one can of course challenge to what extent remains of a Roman or Byzantine street or building can find a place in people’s processes of constructing their identity or ‘forging’ their memory. Although the 19th century discourse of the monument as ruin (Huyssen, 2003) has inspired and ruled (still does) archaeological heritage management and public perception of archaeology in Greece, yet it does not always define people’s interactions with archaeological monuments or ruins. One can argue that an ‘antiquities fatique’ has built up the last 50 years or so in Greece, during which an intense property development in cities met with the professionalisation and state centralisation of archaeological practice.  The meeting wasn’t a happy one (still isn’t). The proliferation of ruins and remains in building constructions has led to local people’s over-familiarisation with the symbolic past, yet an estrangement from its material counterpart. This estrangement has become greater as residents have constantly been excluded from any involvement in the uncovering and managing those remains. As Laurajane Smith stresses, ‘embedded within this discourse is the idea that the proper care of heritage, and its associated values, lies with the experts, as it is only they who have the abilities, knowledge and understanding to identify the innate value and knowledge  contained at and within historically important sites and places’ (2006: 30). In practice, this exclusion has led to a lack of (symbolic) ownership and the remains are seen as ‘intruders’ not only to people’s lives, but also people’s cultural identities.

These archaeological remains are in a liminal state: between public and private; cultural heritage and cultural rubbish; visibility and invisibility; selective accessibility and general inaccessibility; knowledge and ignorance; acknowledgment and forgetting. They have become a fetus of an unborn public memory, disregarded traces of a city’s heritage identity and cultural imagination and self-perceived guilt of an aspiring professional archaeological practice. They are ‘skeletons in the closet’; prisoners in an in-betweeen space and state that yet expose the characteristics, perceptions and boundaries of archaeological heritage management and people’s relationship with the city’s built heritage.

***

Related Project: ‘Curators in Residence’: Hidden archaeological sites and ‘virtual curating’

This research aims to engage residents in Veroia, Greece with the interpretation and presentation of antiquities preserved under modern buildings via the use of digital media. Through the active involvement of residents and the application of digital technologies, the project aims to develop a network of volunteer ‘virtual curators’ that would contribute towards a collaborative, localised and personalised presentation of the ‘hidden’ archaeological sites. The project aims also to explore whether through participation in the presentation of built heritage, residents develop a sense of ownership and stewardship of the antiquities and how their process of ‘heritage memory’ is enhanced, disrupted or challenged through that process.

References

Huyssen, A. 2003. Present Pasts. Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Pearce, S.M. 1990. Archaeological Curatorship. London: Leicester University Press.

Smith, L. 2006. Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

 

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One thought on “‘Skeletons in the closet’: Forgetting the past in an urban present

  1. lukebennett13

    Reblogged this on lukebennett13 and commented:
    Kostas Arvanitis’ blog on the preservation of fragments of the ancient Greek built environment within and beneath modern developments gives a poignant – and more ancient – echo of de Certeau’s “seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories[which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)

    Reply

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