The Hellenic Museum Australia is housed in the former Royal Mint, a heritage listed building in the heart of Melbourne. Erected in 1872 in response to the influx of gold flowing from the Victorian goldfields; the Mint was designed by government architect JJ Clark who styled the main administration building on Raphael's Palazzo Vidoni-Caffarelli in Rome. It remains one of the finest examples of conservative classicism in Victoria.
Founded in 2007 by Melbourne businessman and philanthropist Spiros Stamoulis, the Hellenic Museum is dedicated to inspiring a passion for Hellenism by engaging visitors with innovative cultural programs, exhibitions and events. In its first years of operation the Museum focused primarily on the procurement and exhibition of curated collections from different Greek cultural institutions, under the auspices of the Greek Ministry for Culture. Over the past three years the Museum’s direction has changed dramatically from being a vessel for the display of third party collections to becoming a content creator and exhibitions innovator.
To fully appreciate the complexity and breadth of Greek culture and history it cannot be viewed from a single perspective. Therefore the Hellenic Museum seeks to further build on the last three years of development by bringing together multiple artistic disciplines, historical objects, perspectives and ways of understanding in order to develop a holistic experience of Greece, Greek culture and the contribution it has made, and continues to make to contemporary society. The Gods, Myths Mortals project was developed in collaboration with the Benaki Museum in Athens as a way to achieve these goals and enhance the cultural connection between Melbourne and Greece by developing an ongoing exchange of art and ideas. The main objective behind securing a loan of ten years was to enable the exhibition to grow and develop within the context of the city as well as being a platform from which other exhibitions, events and artworks could evolve.
The idea was proposed by the Hellenic Museum’s CEO and Creative Director John Tatoulis whose long association with the Benaki Museum and deep respect for their dedication to the exposition of Greek history in its infinite variety, caused him to approach them with the proposal of a long-term cultural partnership. This was supported, wholeheartedly, by the Hellenic Museum board, the Benaki Museum director and board, and by the Greek and Victorian Governments.
Gods, Myths Mortals is an important cultural resource for Australia. The education program supports the Australian education curriculum at both primary and secondary levels in areas of classics, art, civics and citizenship, ancient, medieval and modern history, visual arts and design. The Greek version of the education guide has enhanced the teaching of Modern Greek in Victoria giving educators another avenue of engagement. Introducing classics and history at a young age is a key feature of the Museum’s mission to inspire new generations and instilling them a respect for history, which will ensure the ongoing care and protection of cultural objects.
The loan of an exhibition of this calibre is, in its self, a significant coup for Australia, which has nothing else of this style anywhere in the country. Additionally, Greece’s Ministry of Culture has never allowed a collection of this magnitude to leave Greece for more than a year, and even then only to the world’s major Museums, thus a ten-year loan to Australia’s developing Hellenic Museum is a significant achievement.
The exhibition is housed in a heritage-listed building, which comes with a series of challenges related to what can and cannot be changed and installed. One of the considerations of the Museums Award was the innovative way the exhibition was installed within the strict parameters maintained by the heritage department, while managing to create an exhibition layout which complemented both the building and the exhibition content and adhered to museum best practice. The resultant design is specific and sympathetic to both the magnificent building and to the exhibition.
The Hellenic Museum had to face a number of hurdles to ensure the Benaki Museum’s collection could be housed and displayed in the Museum for a decade. Negotiations began between the Benaki Museum, Greece’s Ministry of Culture and the Hellenic Museum to decide whether the works would be allowed to leave Greece. Because Gods, Myths Mortals is not a travelling exhibition, the Hellenic Museum had to curate, insure, transport, conserve and install the objects while maintaining museums best practice. The Hellenic Museum worked closely with International Art Services for the safe delivery and installation of close to 200 items.
The exhibition encapsulates 8000 years of Greek history from the Neolithic period to the War of Independence in approximately 200 works. The Gods, Myths Mortals collection is divided into four chronological periods: Prehistoric, Greek and Roman; Byzantine; Ottoman; and the Neo-Hellenic Periods. The exhibition is large enough to cover all of the major themes and time periods while being intimate enough not to be overwhelming. The exhibition is particularly good for school groups as it allows students to actively trace the progression of Greek art, culture, technology and beliefs over a significant period while still being able to see the recurring themes which have allowed Greeks to maintain a powerful connection to their heritage despite internal and external struggles.
The Hellenic Museum team worked closely with curators from the Benaki Museum carefully selecting items from the Benaki collection that would best create a comprehensive picture of Greece through the ages.
Working with design company Creative Visuals, the Hellenic Museum team developed a design concept inspired by the ancient Greek labyrinth. This enabled us to work within the confines of the existing rooms of the heritage listed former Royal Mint Building. Freestanding cabinetry was purpose built and installed in such a way as to create an intimate, chronological journey of discovery. Unique spaces within the building were also incorporated within the design helping to create a seamless experiential journey. Two examples include the subtle transformation of the former Royal Mint’s gold vault into a Byzantine treasury and the former gold surveyor’s room into a 20-seat theatrette.
One of the key elements of executing a project of this complexity for a small-scale institution is the development of successful partnerships which have a basis in mutual respect and trust. It is also important to have a clear set of goals that are beneficial to each party and further the core endeavours of respective institutions. Additionally, it is important to have a clear idea of where you want the project to take your institution. In the Hellenic Museum’s case we have used the exhibition as a vehicle not only to promote the Museum but also to create new and innovative events and exhibitions which relate to it. As an example, the Museum commissioned world renowned photographer Bill Henson to create a series of portraits incorporating objects from the collection. This series, titled ONEIROI, has created a cultural and artistic dialogue between the ancient past and the present and provides another unique level of engagement for Museum visitors. In other words, the exhibition Gods, Myths and Mortals has become the Hellenic Museum’s cultural locomotive to which we are creatively attaching interesting content carriages thus making the Museum’s visitors’ journey through Greek history more compelling, engaging and rewarding.
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