Economic Lessons From the Greek Acropolis

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By Marc Champion

Greece is in the state it's in because the government had its fingers in industries long since privatized elsewhere; it spent and borrowed recklessly; it failed to collect taxes; and it couldn't pay when the music stopped on the global economy.

So you'd think the new Acropolis Museum, a project of great national pride that opened in 2009 as the crisis struck, would be in dire straits as the government cuts back under orders from its international creditors. Not so, because the museum takes zero funds from the state to fund its operations.

Dimitrios Pandermalis, the archaeologist who runs the glittering 130 million-euro ($172 million) construction, says this was done on purpose. The Acropolis Museum has the legal right to government subsidy, but Pandermalis didn't want to take it. "We wanted to create a healthy organism,'' he says. "We thought that having economic independence would make us more energetic in trying to attract more people to the museum."

Had the Greek state thought that way about the economy as a whole, "our crisis would not be so acute."

To cover the museum's running costs, Pandermalis says he needs to get at least 1 million visitors per year through the doors. Last year, he got 1.3 million. In 2010, the first full year of the museum's existence, it was about 1.5 million.

Pandermalis had intended to charge 10 euros to 12 euros for entry, but because Greece has been mired in an economic decline that has led to a drop in Greek disposable incomes, a ticket to see the statues and friezes of one of Western civilization's greatest monuments costs just 5 euros.

Not everything has gone to plan. The museum was built partly in the hope that the British Museum would then return the marble statuary that Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin, hacked off the Parthenon in 1801-1805 with the permission of Greece's then Ottoman rulers. The U.K. hasn't returned the Elgin collection -- the Acropolis Museum has copies, waiting to be substituted by the real thing.

But at age 72, Pandermalis has seen Greece go through a military dictatorship and numerous economic crises, and he looks after treasures that were carved before 438 B.C., so he takes a long-term view of the country's troubles. "There are long periods of stagnation and then sudden change," he says. "This is the challenge and fascination of human history. Sometimes it's painful that our culture has to change and suffer, but we find solutions."

(Marc is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.) 

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-0- Apr/30/2012 16:18 GMT