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Padlocking the past

Why should anyone lock away their treasures if they don’t absolutely have to?

It is shameful when governments claim but then do not perform the task of keeping our common heritage public. When they cannot, the answer is not to lock away a public good but rather to step forward (or perhaps in this case backward) as citizens to keep that public good available to all

An archaeological site is padlocked due to a strike(File photo: Reuters) An archaeological site is padlocked due to a strike(File photo: Reuters) Watching the US government lock down its national parks and other public property, a few Greek were contemptuous but most were deeply puzzled. The padlocking of their own shops, factories, sports arenas, and museums they see as a sad consequence of economic crisis. But why should anyone lock away their treasures if they don’t absolutely have to?

This question of padlocks came up many times as my wife and I drove through Epirus, the beautiful northwestern corner of Greece. The new archaeological museum in Igoumenitsa was open, barely; contracts for the guards expire in November and the government says it has no money to renew them. Most of the archaeological sites in Epirus, however, were locked and deserted.

Give people a fish, Brussels burbles, and they will have food for a day. Teach them to write EU cohesion grant proposals and they will dine at fish restaurants forever. 

I don’t mean the Acropolis in Athens. Brand-name Greek tourist attractions, those reachable by bus from cruise ships, are still open until 3pm most days. But small regional museums, many of them modern and excellent, have closed or are closing, their modest treasures now reserved only for permit-wielding scholars and determined burglars. The ancient Thesprotian fortress-cities on sheep-cropped hillsides, those remote, thyme-scented footnotes to Thucydides and Pausanias, are inaccessible now as they never were in their 2500-year history.

EU money and EU good intentions are partly to blame for this. Give people a fish, Brussels burbles, and they will have food for a day. Teach them to write EU cohesion grant proposals and they will dine at fish restaurants forever. The beauty, historical importance, and purported tourism potential of archaeological sites make them irresistible to grant approvers.

And so, most ancient sites in Epirus have a sign acknowledging a million euros or so in EU funds. That is a lot of money and many well-intentioned things have been done with it. A freshly asphalted road makes the site accessible. The brush has been hacked back. Pamphlets and multimedia programmes have been written. Lights, signs, even little electronic information kiosks have sprouted. But the key addition is a perimeter fence, a lockable gate, and a climate-controlled booth for the guards.

During the life of these projects, dozens of hungry archaeologists and workmen – more than strictly necessary, to judge from the coffee-sipping crowd in one project office – got a precious year or two of income. But EU grants do not pay guard salaries, electricity, or information kiosk maintenance. They should.

In some idealised bureaucratic universe, thousands of people flock to upgraded sites and pay market prices for beauty and history. In this universe, however, there are too few tourists at €4 a head, so austerity dictates that the guard booth will be empty, the gates locked, the LCD screens dark. A million euros will have been spent, and its intended beneficiaries will be shut out. Soon the new asphalt washes away. The bushes grow back.

Humans have been using padlocks since Roman times if not earlier. A padlock always implies a moral failure. 

A padlock is not the same as site security. Sometimes we could get in, through holes shepherds or local antiquities hunters had made in the wire fences. But we should have brought a stepladder. Only at one site, the obscure acropolis of Dymokastro, north of Parga, had EU funds achieved a sensible and sustainable goal – a clear footpath, excellent signs and arrows, and a written plea to close the gate behind you lest the livestock stray.

When I first came to Greece in the 1970s, local pride rather than the Greek state was still the chief protection for smaller cultural sites. Yes, the gate might be locked, but someone in the village had the key and a small boy would be sent running to find it. Villagers felt richer from the respect the visit of educated foreigners implied, even if the financial reward was a few tips and extra bottles of beer. Now, if professional guards are too expensive, why not put up a little sign giving the mobile telephone number of a respectable local citizen entrusted with the key? One easy answer, but not an adequate one, is that padlocked museums and sites are a powerful reproach to stingy finance ministers.

Humans have been using padlocks since Roman times if not earlier. A padlock always implies a moral failure. Whether we are shackling a slave or securing our wealth from someone else’s hunger, the click of the lock marks us and our society as less honourable than we aspire to be. And it is shameful when governments claim but then do not perform the task of keeping our common heritage public. When they cannot, the answer is not to lock away a public good but rather to step forward (or perhaps in this case backward) as citizens to keep that public good available to all.

Human folly does not spoil the majesty of the Greek landscape. Please visit it soon. In America you may well be arrested for breaking into a closed national treasure. In Greece, until the state changes its policy, plan to bring your stepladder.

* John Brady Kiesling was a diplomat in the US Foreign Service for 20 years prior to his resignation in protest over the looming US invasion of Iraq. At the time, Kiesling was political counselor in the US Embassy in Athens. He has since written a book entitled Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower (Potomac Books 2006). He lives in Athens

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