Athens should rent out the Acropolis

It was recently reported that, having hit absolute financial rock bottom, Athens had decided to take the dramatic step of renting out the Acropolis to foreign film crews, advertising agencies and commercial enterprises. Visions of gigantic advertisements besmirching the cultural legacy of a once-great nation and attracting hordes of Coca-Cola-slurping, hamburger-gobbling tourists inspired terror and disgust in Grauniad commentators across the nation. What actually happened was far more banal: the Greek culture and tourism ministry announced a reduction in fees for filming and photography at sites of cultural interest, and the part about renting out the Acropolis turned out to be a rumour. Nevertheless, the story raised some interesting questions about the value of history in the present day.

Why shouldn’t Athens rent out the Acropolis? Greece’s central council of archaeology is probably the most vocal opponent of such a plan – it has always refused official access to the country’s archaeological treasures to anyone apart from researchers (this does not include tourist visits). The Acropolis has only been rented out once to a film company, after the Greek-American actress Nia Vardalos spent “an awful lot of energy and time” convincing Greece of the financial benefits. Athens is not just protecting its historical treasures – it is shutting them off from opportunities for publicity and financial profit. The results are damaging to the country’s financial welfare and cultural legacy.

An extremely unscientific survey involving a couple of Oxford undergraduates demonstrated that hardly anyone knows what the Acropolis is actually for. The historical and cultural significance of one of Greece’s national treasures is largely lost on today’s generation. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Greece’s cultural protectionism is to blame. Yes, travel broadens the mind, and if we all went to Athens and had a look at the ruins we might actually appreciate their architectural beauty and find out about their political and religious significance. But as many history students will attest, the  best (easiest) historical and cultural education comes from films. If the Acropolis never appears on our cinema screens, it is frighteningly possible that we will just forget its existence altogether.

Furthermore, there is a real problem with funding the maintenance of archaeological treasures like the Acropolis. The Greek culture ministry receives just 0.7 percent of the national budget, and the financial crisis has left it even worse off: its funds have been cut by over 30 percent since 2010. If Greece’s culture ministry does not find a way to increase funding for keeping sites such as the Acropolis in good condition (as far as that term can be applied to archaeological ruins), it may well cease to exist even for researchers.

What is Greece protecting the Acropolis from? Granting better access to places of cultural significance is what transforms them into places of cultural interest. Take for example the work of English Heritage, which organises ghost tours of several castles across Britain, or the use of Durham Cathedral and some of the Bodleian libraries in the filming of Harry Potter. These things help to bring in publicity and revenue for the sites. Being a little less protective of the Acropolis would help both to increase the funds for its upkeep and encourage people to care about it. Reducing filming and photography costs is an important first step to doing this, but Athens should go further. The Acropolis should be made to pay its way, instead of being put on a pedestal of cultural importance which somehow makes it sinful to involve it with economics and profit.

-Nika Jones