By Vasilis Papoutsis, Contributing Editor
The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is housed in one of the most beautiful neoclassical-style buildings in Athens, near the National Garden and the Hellenic Parliament. The Benakis family mansion was donated to the Greek Government by Antonis Benakis and his three sisters, Alexandra, Penelope and Argine and was converted into a museum in order to house his collections. Antonis Benakis began his career as a collector in Alexandria, Egypt and decided to donate his collections to the Greek State largely influenced by his father Emmanuel Benakis, a close friend and supporter of the great Greek Statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, who had donated his fortune to several charitable foundations and contributed to the settlement of refugees in the aftermath of the catastrophe in Asia Minor.
Although the museum initially housed a collection of more than 37,000 Islamic and Byzantine objects as well as Chinese porcelain, today the recently refurbished museum focuses exclusively on Greek culture from prehistoric times to the 20th century. Visionary museum director Angelos Delivorrias insisted that donated items must be displayed in order to encourage public participation and strengthen ties with the community. Under his leadership the museum added more than 60,000 objects, books and documents and the museum was further endowed by various donors and today the Benaki Museum is a cluster of satellite museums that focus on specific collections.
The seaside Kouloura Mansion houses the Toy Museum, the Benaki Museum located in the Kerameikos district features one of the finest Islamic Art collections, the Nikos- Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas Gallery in downtown Athens, the Benakis Museum on Pireos street and the Penelope Delta House in Kifissia which houses the Historical Archive Collection. The Yiannis Pappas Studio in the Zographou district it is in the same building that housed the family of this important artist and was also a workspace for the artist who loved both sculpture and painting. His son donated the home as he wanted the artist’s work to remain together in their natural physical space.
The Patrick & Joan Leigh Fermor Centre, a beautiful villa that the Fermors built in Kardamily Messinia, was donated to the Benaki and will soon start operations. Patrick Leigh Fermor was an author, scholar and a British Special Forces officer who organized the Cretan resistance against the Nazi occupation and under his command allied forces captured German commander Heinrich Kreipe. The Centre’s operation will include residencies and educational activities in collaboration with world-renowned universities and cultural activities open to the community.
Benakis Museum’s Academic Director George Manginis has an impressive array of credentials having studied Archaeology and history of the Art at the University of Athens, was awarded a Ph.D. on the history of Mount Sinai, Egypt from the SOAS/ University of London and was also a Stanley J. Seeger Fellow at Princeton University. Talking to the HNA Manginis said that “our Islamic art collection is one of the finest in Europe, and the Mentis Donation that includes all merchandise in storage, as well as the equipment of the MENTIS fibred manufactory, is one of the oldest and most unique in Greece.”
The Benakis museum is very active in exhibiting both domestically and internationally. “We organize 30 to 40 exhibitions a year and most of them are self-funded. One of the most important ones is our collaboration with the Hellenic Museum of Melbourne that hosts our award-winning collection of Gods, Myths & Mortals for a period of 10 years that started in 2014. The exhibition covers a span of 8,000 years and with Melbourne being home to one of the largest Greek populations outside of Greece we bring our cultural heritage to Hellenes and also the very diverse populations of Melbourne” said director Manginis. An impressive exhibit that came to Los Angeles, California “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections” was comprised by more than 200 objects and the LA Times in its review said that “The Byzantine art was beautifully encapsulated in the Getty Villa’s galleries, and it is reportedly the largest show of its kind ever to be seen in Los Angeles.” The exhibition was organized by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports in a joint effort with the Benaki Museum and in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum. Costantza Sbokou-Constantakopoulou who is a member of the board of directors and was part of the Benaki Museum’s delegation that came to Los Angeles told the HNA that “the Benaki Museum has been in a transition phase for the last 5 years with organizational and financial restructure up and running with remarkable results. We are all very proud of the work that has been done and we continue to work in that direction. During the 5 years world famous exhibitions and events have taken place and we are very proud of the opening of the Benaki Toy Museum in 2017, which is among the most important in Europe with toys, books and clothing associated with childhood from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.”
One fascinating exhibition coming up in October 2019, is The Landscape of Santorini in the Greek painting of 20th Century. A selection of 84 paintings of great Greek artists such as Yiannis Moralis and Vassos Germenis will illuminate the visitors with the unique landscape of Santorini. A book with the same title will allow the visitors to read the history of the creation along with personal stories of collector Dimitris Tsitouras who was a close friend with the artists.