So, in view of our history, in view of our brightest accomplishments and our biggest shortcomings, and in view of all there is we can tap into to be what we can be, my advice to those trying to help Greece out of the crisis, and I mean both the Greek leadership and our European counterparts, is to stop trying to put a straightjacket on our nature and help us change our institutions and our economy to reflect who we are and what we do best

Ladies and Gentlemen,
When Christine and I were preparing this talk, Christine suggested that it should not be about politics. The Museum of Fine Arts forbade it. Discouraged it I should say

It should be about culture

I thought this was fair

But the more I thought about the different approaches to the talk the more the distinction bothered me

Separate culture and politics? How could you?

Culture and politics are expressions of human thought, human emotion, rational as well as irrational behavior

When allowed to express ourselves freely, we the people, express ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, both and at the same time, through culture and through politics

So, they both reflects the values we share at any time

Both reflect who we are and what we believe in

They showcase our identity, because we are both their parents and their children

So, in a democracy, there cannot be a cultural speech devoid of politics and, I assure you, there should not be a political speech devoid of culture

It is in the very nature of the Humanistic tradition we share to consider them inseparable
So, apologies Christine, but any which way I cut it, this talk kept turning out political

(Besides, it is the first time I have been in the United States since the election of your new President and there are a few things I would like to get off my chest…)

Do not worry though.

If my dear professor is fired by the end of my speech, there is a very prestigious educational institution which would love to have her back
My focus then today is about the role of culture in building a solid society

1. How we weaken our communities and therefor ourselves when we remove people, and therefor culture, from our collective decision-making process

2. How several perils facing Greece today have roots in violations of tradition and heritage when building the modern Greek state after the Revolution, the Greek economy after the World War II, and when handling the economic crisis today

3. And finally, how the crisis is an opportunity to right these wrongs if we build our future true to who we are and how cultural institutions can play an immense role in helping us do that

I will use an institution I deeply care about as my example:

The Benaki Museum is the only museum in the world that covers Greek history and art from pre-historic times until today and the second most visited museum in Athens

It is made up of five buildings open to the public with another three to open

These buildings house:
• 120.000 artworks from the Paleolithic Era to today
• 10.000 Prehistoric, ancient Greek and Roman artifacts
• 5.000 Byzantine icons, artifacts and Coptic textiles
• 2.000 liturgical vestments and vessels
• 24.000 pieces of neo-Hellenic art, historic heirlooms and coins
• 32.000 artworks of contemporary Greek artists
• 30.000 toys in one of the most important collections in the world
• 10.000 paintings, drawings and engravings
• 15.000 artifacts of world cultures including one of the most renowned collections of Islamic art in the world
• 4.000 archival pieces of history, architecture and the performing arts
• A library of 180.000 books of which almost 500 published by the museum
• More than 400 manuscripts of immense value
• And a photographic archive of 700.000 negatives and 80.000 original photographs

Basically, since its foundation, the Benaki Museum has become a depository of trust for Greek collectors

An arch of Greek heritage and human creativity

And as such it remains today one of the most useful tools we have to understand who we are, why we are who we are and who we can become.
Through its collections and archives the Benaki covers every aspect of Greek life, history and art:


Homeric Greece: Mycenaean, Minoan, Cycladic

The Trojan Wars and Ancient Athens

Alexander the Great

Greece in Roman times

Byzantine Greece

Greece under the Ottoman Rule

The Greek Revolution and the creation of the Modern Greek State

The Balkan Wars where Greece doubled its territory

The Great Schism and World War One

The Asia Minor Catastrophe

The prolific ‘30s

The Second World War and the Greek civil war

The dictatorship and the reinstitution of Democracy

All the way to contemporary performances and exhibits
The long history of a very ancient civilization and a very young nation, under one roof
But why is this important?

Because that is not how we, Greeks, learn our history in school

Nor, how we display our heritage in our museums

A young Greek starts history with mythology

Then we get to Homer and the expedition in Troy. We learn about Mycenaean, Minoan and Cycladic art and history

The Persian Wars and

The glory of Athens

And after that the glory of Alexander the Great

Then… darkness

As if Greek culture and heritage ceased to exist in the 500 years of the Roman Empire

Then, (seemingly, out of nowhere) the glory of Byzantium

A Christian, Greek speaking Empire that spanned 1000 years

Then… darkness

400 years of Ottoman rule

Then, the glory of the Greek revolution (again seemingly out of nowhere)

Then… darkness again

Greek history ends for a Greek student before the 20th century begins.

Why these “dark” periods?

Several reasons:

• too much material to cover,
• too little glory, too few heroic battles,
• too many controversial subjects like the civil war and Greek dictatorships

As if Greek civilization perished when it was not fighting wars

But in doing so the Greek educational system breaks up the fascinating continuum that is the progress of the Greek spirit though the ages
So, young Greeks grow up with an unfortunate choice:

Am I a son and daughter of the ancients?

Or am I defined by my Orthodox faith, the glory of Byzantium and the heroic Greek revolution?

A fragmented narrative of our history leads to a fragmented understanding of who we are:

Do I belong to the West that was shaped by my forefathers’ ideas?

Or am I part of an Eastern tradition shaped by Eastern Christianity and 400 years of Ottoman rule?

Some Greeks are sick and tired of the debate altogether and want to be neither

Just citizens of a modern democratic state that wants to build its own future
How relevant is this debate?

Let me ask the same question in a different manner:

“What is the price that I am willing to pay to stay in the Euro?”
If you have seen the protests in the streets of Athens, then you realize that the debate is relevant and the sides are passionate
However, when forced to make a choice two things happen:

1. We abandon things that are true to our nature

2. We pick up things that are not, in order to fill the gap

The process is not only extremely painful

It derails progress if done in a manner that is insensitive to those who have to make it

There are no dark periods in the Benaki Museum

Just a constant uninterrupted stream of Greek creativity linking every period to the ones before and the one after and Greek civilization to those we influenced and those who influenced us
In a seamless progression, it links us Greeks to our forefathers and in so doing it encourages us not to make choices between periods but to embrace the whole narrative as a beautiful expression of Greek creativity and therefor the Greek spirit
So, weather a Greek or a foreigner, if you want to understand who Greeks are, if we want to know where we come from, what made us into who we are and why, all you need to do is understand the wealth in the Benaki and the values of the people behind this wealth
Which brings me to today.

The Greek crisis.

How many know what happened?

Depending on who you talk to back home the following events are candidates at fault:
1 year ago, Tsipras and his referendum

3 years ago, Samaras and his persistence on elections

7 years ago, Papandreou and his revealing of the real economic statistics to the Europeans

10 years ago, Karamanlis and the ballooning of Greek debt

20 years ago, Simitis, the Euro and the Olympics

70 years ago, the way we shaped our modern economy after the end of World War II

200 years ago, the Greek Revolution and the way the Modern Greek State was formed

and then some others, including unfortunately several narrow minded European leaders..

5000 years ago, the shaping of the Greek character
People tend to be partial as to who and what to blame for the crisis (I know I am), but the real question we should be asking is

“Can we learn something from the past in order to shape a better future?”

Right away I can tell you, that even if we wanted to, there is little we can do to change the Greek character

So, there is little to learn there
There is also little we can learn by fighting over which Prime Minister to blame

There is also very little we can do to undo their past actions

So, let’s scrap these scenarios

The reality is that if we want to fix things, two scenarios are of real constructive value:

The Economic Scenario
And the Institutions Scenario

The former refers to the way the modern Greek economy grew after World War II and the civil war

The later refers to the way the Greek state was formed after the Greek Revolution of 1821

They are very much linked, so let me start from the beginning by using an example of how things can go wrong when we take people out of the equation

and when we make decisions disregarding our real nature, who we really are
If you walk the second floor of the Benaki Museum you will observe different costumes of the Greek country side

It does not take long to notice the amazing variety

From costumes that have strong influences from the West

to costumes that could easily be worn in the steppes of Afghanistan

And everything in between

All Greek

Each village and each island has its own, a symbol of the value we place on uniqueness

Like our costumes, our tastes are local, our produce is local, our products and our recipes are local

You might know Tyropita, cheese pie, but even our fast food joints could not standardize the product and have to offer four or five varieties of the same pita

You might know Feta but we need to know where it comes from

All our cheeses in fact

Same with our olive oil

Same with our fruits and vegetables

Obviously, our wines and spirits

The same distillation process is named one thing in Crete and another in Epirus

We can tell subtle differences and we have our preferences

In some ways, where you have brands we have toponimia, names of places

This is not new

It has its roots in the ancient Polis, where although all cities shared a Greek identity they each held their own autonomous nature

An Athenian could not be a Spartan and a Spartan could not be an Athenian

A feeling that is very much alive today

Partly kept alive by the mountains that separate our land and our multiple islands

These costumes are living proof that our ancient tradition of regionalism and sectionalism was still very much pronounced in the 19th and early 20th centuries
In fact, we are still very proud of it

I always say I come from Lixouri, a small town on the island of Kefalonia, when not even my great grandfather was born there

(In several parts of Greece we define a sectionalist as anybody who mistakenly thinks their land is more beautiful than ours)

Another room I find very interesting in the Benaki is a room that hosts tens of paintings of foreign visitors to Greece while under the Ottoman rule

The great majority of them are of ancient ruins

The great majority of those are of the Acropolis
It showcases what our allies expected to find when they helped us fight the Ottomans: the children of the ancients

Not any ancient Greek. Ancient Athenians, the intellectual mentors of their own Renaissance

They did not. They found a nation of Greeks, Vlachs, Arvanites, Jews and Muslims, Slavs and Turks who had evolved through centuries
Influences from the East and the West, immigration and migration, trade and shipping through 2000 years of history had left their mark while preserving the multiple facets of Hellenism on a regional level

And although no peoples might ever reach the intense prolific nature of our ancient Athenian forefathers, 2000 years had made us, in many ways richer in all aspects of our lives and culture

However, our progress away from the ancients and our varied nature rather disappointed those who envisioned the recreation of ancient Athens

So, in 1833, several Greek leaders, encouraged by our allies, started doing something no leader should ever do

They started erasing history

In an effort to unify Greece and “re-westernize” Greeks, our allies helped establish a powerful central state and a Bavarian king as its head
Two rather un-Greek institutions
So much was the need for a centralized power that all peripheral institutions, like local government and the judiciary, were kept weak and dependent on central authority

Without a Constitution until 1843 the King ruled, more or less with absolute power and after his fall the central state took over, more or less the same level of control

Interestingly enough, one of the purposes of the original powerful centralized state was to collect taxes so Greece would repay its debts caused by the revolution

A priority mirrored today by the Troika, the European body that is trying to get Greece to repay its debts to its creditors, also pushing for a stronger centralized state, few decision-making bodies and one centralized fund managing all Greek assets, from the tiniest beach to large state corporations, leveraged to guarantee Greek debt to foreign debtholders

Needless to say, the king lasted approximately 30 years and the monarchy struggled to reestablish itself several times until 1974 when Greeks voted to abolish it

But the centralized state and the weak institutions lasted until today and the former grew more powerful by managing and distributing wealth and building clientelist relationships
Which brings me to the slow death of Greek creativity and the perils of the Greek economy

How many people here are familiar with the term Dutch Disease?
It refers to the problems that occur when an economy is over dependent on a natural resource and the resource runs out or cannot be extracted anymore

While the economy depends on one resource, people stop producing what they are traditionally good at and this leads the economy to fail when the resource is no more

It took the Dutch more than 15 years to revive their economy after 15 years of relying extensively on the extraction of natural gas

Well, since 1945 the Greek economy has grown as if we discovered gas

In the ‘40s we got the money from the Marshall Plan
These were US funds aimed at developing the Greek economy and keeping Greece away from the Communist block and the USSR
In the 50’s and 60’s we had money transfers from Greek immigrants in the US, Australia and Germany
In the 60’s and 70’s came investments from Greek ship owners who repatriated their capital
In the 80’s, 90’s and 2000s came funds from the EU
together with a stock market bubble, a real estate bubble, and cheap capital made us feel richer than the economy could have done on its own

For the past 70 years the Greek economy has grown as if in a perpetual Dutch Disease killing off industry after traditional industry and putting in its place a central state driving development without a plan, feeding with cash either the public sector, large state corporations and overpriced agriculture products

Greek banks and Greek enterprises have become completely hooked on subsidies, government contracts and debt from government controlled banks
This progression could not have peaked at a more inopportune time

Looking back to the 90s and 2000s one can find the roots of an economic perfect storm

1. A centralized state that controlled most of the Greek economy and assets through foreign subsidies and squandered any other economic activity through bureaucracy

2. Easy credit and a new wave of consumerism driving Greeks away from their own products and services and opting for imports

3. A heavily urbanized country with 50% of the population living in one city

4. A European Union requiring further standardization of production and discouraging niche activities

5. A globalization economy in demand of low cost mass production to drive productivity

Each and together they pushed the Greek economy away from its core competencies, weakened its unique multifaceted character and thwarted productivity

When the funds keeping the economy alive run dry, Greek society was left in shambles and Greek creativity was left wondering what just happened

Plus, two very disturbing problems:

1. An economy that has forgotten how to stand on its own feet, and

2. A leadership that does not know how to get us out of the crisis

A political leadership which learnt how to distribute wealth, often for its own political benefits, but never learned how wealth is created

A political, a corporate, a banking and a media leadership and a judiciary lead by people most of whom cannot picture a world where Greece will not live off handouts since that is the only Greece they know and the only Greece they have served
So, in a span of 100 years, Greeks:

Strengthened an all powerful, centralized state, a form for government unnatural to their nature and needs

Abandoned industries they knew, for industries, products and services that could be subsidized

Competed on labor cost as opposed to its abundant and well educated human capital

Opted for mass markets as opposed to authenticity and uniqueness

And weakened traditional small and medium size family enterprises, opting for large multinational chains (small family owned corner stores became large failing supermarkets dragging down agricultural prices and the jewels of the Greek agriculture sector with them)
Now, I am not claiming that if you are given money you should say “no”, nor do I believe that transfers and subsidies are not useful tools when used correctly to grow or to shift your economy, but what happened in Greece is a lesson to be avoided

Nor am I claiming that all the problems of the Greek economy will be solved by decentralization, by boutique production and services and solely by investing in the uniqueness that is Greek creativity

But I am saying that in a world were quality and authenticity has a lucrative and expansive market, where unique experiences are overtaking mass travel, where energy is produced by wind and light, where geographic proximity to rich markets is a source of wealth, Greece is perfectly well suited to grow on its own two feet

And in a world where health, happiness and well-being are becoming paramount to a huge market, the Greek way of life, Greek history and tradition, the Greek countryside, Greek farm produce and the Greek diet still constitute the lowest hanging fruit of the Greek economy that can be reaped to start turning it around

As long as Greek creativity is allowed to flourish and Greeks remember what they were good at producing and servicing

What I am saying is that we should grow our economies and by extension strengthen our societies by keeping people in the center of our design process since they will carry the load

That we should remain true to our nature and who we are to avoid killing the goose that lays golden eggs

And that all creativity, the source of any economic development, is deeply rooted in our nature and therefor in our tradition and our culture
Ladies and Gentlemen

Museums, like all other cultural and educational institutions, are key to understanding who we are

That is why I deeply believe that museums should not only be showcases displaying and protecting artifacts

They should be showcases of the people behind the artifacts and, more importantly, the values of the people behind the artifacts

Things we create from high culture to the plates we eat from are threads in the tapestries of our uniqueness

And the patterns that the threads create show what we are made of, what we are good at, our talents and our dexterities as well as our shortcomings and our weaknesses

In other words, who we are, our culture and our nature should always remain central drivers when building our nations and growing our economies or we are bound to become something we are not

And that is a very precarious and unsustainable place to be

So, if the nature of who we are is the best guide to how we run our communities and by extension grow our economies, then cultural institutions are uniquely qualified to do exactly that

And hence, my dear Christine, lies my call to make museums such as the Benaki and the MFA more political, to make museums who study our heritage and tradition take an active stand in helping us understand who we are, and by extension participate actively in how we run our democracies and how we grow our economies

To make them into institutions that help us connect with our true nature in order to help make us the people we can and want to be

And thus, to be institutions driven by the will to reach all people. Not just the few, not just the elites, and not just the inquisitive

I have walked the halls of the Benaki museum for decades fascinated by what it is that makes us Greeks, finding symbols that link one period to the other

There are several

And one day, I asked the director of the museum:

“Is there one symbol that spans through the ages, one symbol that lasts our whole history, observed by all generations from ancient times until today?”

Without blinking she answered “the winged human”
Sometimes a God

sometimes and angel

sometimes cupid

sometimes an inspiration

sometimes a lover
But always very human in appearance and in nature

A human that surpasses his or her own limitations to inspire in the rest of us everything we can be
We all strive to surpass our limitations and as Greeks today we are called upon to do so in a manner and in a speed that few have done before us

But we cannot do it by being something we are not

The only way to surpass our limitations is to stay true to who we are and build on that which we are good at

So, in view of our history, in view of our brightest accomplishments and our biggest shortcomings, and in view of all there is we can tap into to be what we can be, my advice to those trying to help Greece out of the crisis, and I mean both the Greek leadership and our European counterparts, is to stop trying to put a straightjacket on our nature and help us change our institutions and our economy to reflect who we are and what we do best

In other words, let Greeks be Greeks

And when you have some time, walk the halls of the Benaki Museum

If for no other reason, to realize that when we remain true to who we are, true to our nature and our culture, there are no limits to what we can achieve

Thank you