Museum Hopping: The Benaki

It’s time for another museum field trip! Who made the decision that adults no longer need field trips? Weren’t field trips one of the greatest perks of grade school? If you missed our first Museum Hopping trip, you can go on that trip in this post.

Today’s field trip takes us all the way to the heart of sunny Athens, Greece. I had the pleasure of working in Athens several years ago and I used my off time to explore all of the city’s beautiful museums. There are many great museums in Athens, but my favorite, for many reasons that I’ll show you, is The Benaki Museum.

Before we go inside, I have a little confession to own up to about museums. I have been to a lot of museums. I mean A LOT.  Hundreds. I love museums for learning about a country’s culture. However, I have also learned (the hard way) that you can easily over-do your museum experience if you aren’t careful.

I think everyone has a maximum limit of glass cases they can look down into, red velvet ropes they can shuffle past, sculptures they can walk around and paintings that they can gaze upon. It is different for every person. After you hit your limit, your brain goes into what I call “Museum Glaze”. You are walking around, looking at priceless things, but they all start to blend together until youcan’trememberifyou’vebeeninthisroombefore… Museum Glaze can strike anyone, anywhere, even when you’ve finally reached the front of the line to see the diminutive “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre.

Image courtesy of venere.com

So, when I tell you that The Benaki Museum (pronounced: “ben-AH-kee”) is one of the best museums I have ever been to, it is in part due to their lovely collection. It is also due to the fact that they’ve skillfully laid out the museum to fight the dreaded Museum Glaze. It’s fantastic! The Benaki should give master classes to other museums.

The Benaki Museum was founded by Antonis Benakis (1873-1954). Born into a wealthy family with a strong civic devotion to Greek culture and history, Antonis had always been a collector of fine art and folk art. Here is Antonis with one of his sisters, Penelope Delta, who was a celebrated children’s author:

Don't they look like people you would like to know?

Antonis came up with the idea of using his collections to create a museum for all Greek citizens to enjoy fine items from their history. His brothers and sisters liked the idea so much that they offered their collections for the museum, too. They also had a great idea for the museum’s location. Why not use Dad’s old family home (umm…mansion) to house it all?

The Benaki family home in 1930

The family home was inaugurated as a museum in 1931. Established as a public-benefit organization, the museum is run on the monetary donations of benefactors and artistic donations of collectors. Here’s an example of how the earliest galleries of the museum looked:

Can you see how this is a rather small room? It could have been a spare guest bedroom before the house was a museum. My theory is that using these smaller rooms as they were is one of the many ways the museum feels approachable and intimate. (Take that, Museum Glaze!)

Major renovations have occurred to the original mansion over the years, as the collection has expanded. As of 2011, the museum now includes 7 different buildings across the city. Let’s go inside…

This what greeted me in the first gallery.

I’m not gonna lie. My first thought was, “Oh dear. I hope this huge mansion isn’t full of ancient pottery shards.” (I did warn you that I am a very jaded museum visitor.) Happily, my attitude was very, very wrong.

This bowl was in the Neolithic gallery of the museum. It dates from 5,300-4,500, BC. Think of how many everyday dishes you have broken in your own kitchen and then realize that this glazed bowl (I get the “glazed” irony, believe me) is over 7, 000 years old. I was impressed.

A few rooms later I found a few of these:

I love these types of Grecian urns, properly called “hydria”, because they all tell stories. Some tell the stories of great Greek myth heroes and others, like this one, show scenes of daily life. I love to see how other people lived, even if it means staring at their version of Corningware.

A few rooms later brought me to this:

This gold wreath of oak leaves dates from the late 2nd century, BC. It was made by pounding gold into flat leaf, then cutting and decorating the gold to resemble oak leaves, then mounting the leaves on a decorative gold headband.

Can you see the flowers attached along the “stem” of the headband, too?  The leaves are so thin, I found myself holding my breath as I leaned in for a closer look. I can’t imagine securing something so delicate to my hair. How on earth did this survive for 4,000 years?

And there was more:

Can you guess what these are? For all you art history lovers out there, these are masterpieces from Hellenistic and Early Roman gold work. Look directly below the big circles at the top. Can you see the little muses reclining as they play their lyres? Remember that these are hand-made: coiled, carved, pounded and sculpted from gold. Any guesses as to what these are? They’re earrings. (I’ll wait while you ogle them some more. Just don’t get any drool on the glass case. Museum directors don’t care for that…)

Just when you think you can’t look down into one more glass case, we are changing floors and changing exhibit items. It’s now time to see how the Greek people have lived in their homes over the past centuries. I’m only going to show you some of my very favorite items. There are a lot more treasures to discover when you visit someday!

This called a “sperveri”, which translates roughly to “curtains for the bridal bed”. It comes from Rhodes and the 17th-18th centuries. I’m not a skilled seamstress, so I am really impressed by the perfect symmetry of the patterns embroidered in silk on this fabric. So beautiful. This bed is also rather small when you stand next to it, which is another great reminder of how much humans have grown over the past centuries of better nutrition.

Speaking of bridal things:

This is a bridal costume from the 19th century Attica region of Greece. The gold cloth you see is actually entirely embroidered with spun gold thread. (Eat your heart out, Kate Middleton.) Doesn’t this look comfortable?

There are many more costumes to see, but maybe this is enough fabric for you? Time to change it up again. (I’m telling ya, these museum directors are genius!) House tours time:

This is a reconstruction of a 19th century home on the island of Skyros. See the clean, white washed walls? You can also see some beautiful ceramics here, which was common way to decorate a home around the Greek War of Independence. I think this looks very cosy and comfortable. I love the colorful embroidered pillows!

Here’s a few older homes:

These two 18th century reception rooms (above & below) were actually re-located in their entirety from their original homes for preservation in The Benaki Museum. You can stand in these rooms in the museum. These pictures do not do them justice.

I have always been a big fan of a window seat, so a whole room full of them seemed rather modern and chic to me.

Whew! We’ve done a lot of walking, but The Benaki has your back. We are three-fourths of the way through the museum and we need a break. And right here is where find the inviting museum cafe and outside terrace.

Remember: Europeans refer to the American "2nd Floor" as the "1st Floor". We are on the American "3rd Floor" on this map. Let's get a drink and relax for a moment.

I’d love to show you a picture of the beautiful view from the terrace, but I can only offer you three words: camera battery fail. (*sigh*)

While we’re taking a little break, I also want to mention that this museum also features galleries of Islamic art:

modern acquisitions:

Diploma for the 1963 Nobel Prize for Literature (I had never seen one before.)

and several galleries titled: “Greece through the eyes of foreign travelers”. I found this outsider’s perspective of your own country’s history rather original in a national museum. I wish more countries embraced this open-minded idea.

Removal of the pedimental sculptures on the orders of Lord Elgin. Sadly, you have to go to London to see these original statues in the British Museum. Watercolor by Sir William Gell, 1801

The top floor of this museum is four small galleries celebrating The War of Greek Independence. This part of Greek history is riveting and I knew very little about it before I visited Athens. The Greek people struggled to free themselves from Turkish occupation for 11 years (1821-1832) before gaining their independence. The Greek Revolution embodies many of the same ideals and memorable characters of the American Revolution. (You learn more of the basics about it here.)

Wandering through the galleries of Greek revolutionaries was not unlike standing in front of great portraits of Patrick Henry, John Adams and George Washington. Here is an elegant example of a Greek patriot:

He seems heroically fierce to me. What a gorgeous uniform. I would certainly want him on my side in a war. Did you notice the room he is standing in?  It looks just like the reception rooms we visited earlier in this post. Real living, 19th century style.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our field trip to The Benaki Museum today. I’d take you to the gift shop, too, but the dollar-to-euro exchange rate is really working against us right now. Still determined to browse? Here’s their online gift shop.

All of the images you have seen in this post are courtesy of the generous Benaki Museum. I know I have raved about them a lot today, but the museum staff at the Benaki are some of the most welcoming and helpful I have ever run across, especially if you are a guest who doesn’t speak Greek. I think Antonis would be proud of today’s Benaki Museum.

If you ever find yourself in Athens, Greece, be sure to put this museum on your things-to-see list. They also offer fabulous concerts, book signings, lectures and special events. In the meantime, you can also browse the English version of their website here:  http://www.benaki.gr/index.asp?id=40207&lang=en

Now it’s your turn! Did your like our museum visit today?  Have you ever experienced “Museum Glaze”? Do you have a great idea for a future Museum Hopping post? Leave a comment!

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Posted on May 6, 2011, in Museum Hopping. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wow! Thanks for the tour. I feel like I got a real taste for the museum. I love the colors of the fabrics on the clothes. I do get museum glaze, but I love that this museum has more than just art on the wall and pieces in glass cases. I’d love to walk through one of their full room exhibits.

    Thanks for saving me the plane fare to Greece!

  2. Great choice for a favorite museum. I loved it when I went through it years ago. I never really understood that part of Greek history and the Byzantine culture and the Benaki does an excellent job explaining it. The art is amazing! Thanks for bringing back the memories.

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