The role played by national museums within the broad field of public history has not been fully addressed. Traditionally national museums have been a privileged stage for shaping and boosting national identity through the exhibition of significant objects and for disseminating official and deeply rooted views of national history. Using the National Historical Museum in Athens as a case study, this paper analyses what happens when a national museum allows its permanent exhibits to be scrutinized by a nonprofessional group whose members then present their own reading of them in the very halls of the museum.

Over the last decades public history has emerged as a distinct and dynamic field within the broader history discipline. At the same time, historians continue to differ in their understanding of the term.1 In this paper I define public history as a participatory and collaborative endeavor in which members of the public may actively engage in the research and interpretation of history. This understanding of public history is popular with the general public, but it does not seem to be fully accepted by academic or museum historians. National museums, in particular, traditionally a privileged stage for presenting sanctified views of national history, are usually reluctant to venture into the unfamiliar waters of collaborative public history projects.

This paper discusses what happens when a national museum opens its permanent galleries to a nonprofessional group of young people, who then stage their own “exhibition within the exhibition” in these same galleries. The paper is in three parts. First, I briefly review approaches to public history to highlight important points and trends and set a framework for the paper. Second, I examine the role of national museums within this field. And third, I present an innovative public history exhibition at the National Historical Museum in Athens, Greece, which may offer useful suggestions for projects of this kind elsewhere.

Public history as a defined subfield emerged in the US in the 1970s as an effort to prepare professional historians for working in a variety of environments outside academia.2 “In its simplest meaning,” wrote Robert Kelley, initiator of the first graduate program in Public Historical Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1976, “public history refers to the employment of historians and the historical method outside of academia.”3 This basic all-encompassing definition has frequently been repeated to denote “all the ways in which history is made available to a non-specialist public.”4 Often this has further been specified as “each form of public presentation of history produced outside scientific institutions, associations and publications” or “the popular presentation of the past to a range of audiences through museums and heritage sites, film and historical fiction.”5 In all the above approaches, understanding of the “public” or “popular” component is limited to work done by professional historians for non-specialist audiences. In this respect, public history is vaguely seen “as a bridge between academically organized historical knowledge and the people’s living experience,” but the exact role or involvement of the public in this process is either not specified or altogether missing.6

Beginning from the mid-1990s many scholars recognized that public history should further involve “history done with the public.”7 Yet other definitions persisted; as aptly summarized by Barbara Franco: “Public history can mean history for the public, of the public, by the public, and with the public.”8 Accordingly, it can encompass work that is pursued “by the combined efforts of historians and lay people” as well as “members of the non-academic public engaging with the past in ways that make it relevant to them.”9 Although there exists a large spectrum of practices between these two axes, for most public historians, people’s active involvement “in the creation of their own histories” is seen as a central goal.10 At the same time many still see public history as “directed outwards: from the research institution, such as a museum, into the communities.”11 Despite the growing body of literature about and the proliferation of grassroots historical work, some still view it with scepticism.12 We still have a long way to go to achieve the goal of history by the public in the form of “direct engagement of public constituencies in the production, reception, and interpretation” of the past.13

The definition and practice of public history varies by national context.14 In Greece, the origin of public history as a field is usually associated with the journal Historein and its editorial team, who in 2001 organized the conference “Claiming History: Aspects of Contemporary Historical Culture.”15 Another landmark was the 2008 publication of the influential book The Wars of Memory: The Second World War in Public History by University of Athens professor Hagen Fleischer. Since then, public history has been gaining momentum mostly outside academia, through the proliferation of a variety of activities including local history projects, oral history groups, history (or memory) walks often organized by professional historians, heated debates over school history textbooks, disputes in the press over “sensitive” periods in Greek history, TV documentaries and films, exhibitions, and more.16 Although several academic historians are actively involved in the public discourse on history, the subject is not taught at university level except for a recently established postgraduate course offered by the Greek Open University.17

Focusing on a specific museum exhibition, in this paper I define public history as the study and presentation of historical research to and with non-specialist audiences, in a variety of forms—often (but not always) falling outside the realm of academic history—and presentations ranging from publications, to museum exhibitions, to social events, and virtual products.”18 Museum exhibitions can communicate history to lay audiences through a variety of interpretive media and accommodate multiple points of view in a straightforward manner. When this is done with the public, using the notion of shared or sharable authority, as introduced by Michael Frisch, the results are extremely rewarding.19 The temporary exhibition, “…stories behind History,” offers a way to examine a productive example of shared authority between a national museum and a group of young people. To contextualize this discussion, below is a brief note on the nature of national museums and their place within the field of public history.

National museums are central institutions in the service of constructing and disseminating a unified and cohesive national identity.20 Yet, their contribution to imagining, shaping, and defining the nation was not analyzed in the European context until the late 2000s, when a series of European Union-funded research programs, including large-scale studies of audience reception, generated valuable results on the public perception of national museums.21 This research found that most people think of national museums as reliable sources of information on national history and as repositories and expressions of national pride. For example, most respondents to a 2012 survey of six national museums in Europe believed that national museums should hold national treasures, give a “complete” account of the nation’s history and the stories of its heroes, and promote national identity.22 Participants to this survey seemed to agree that a national museum should primarily present historically important artifacts linked to heroes of the past, significant events, and representative personalities.23 Most of them seemed to accept a positive, even celebratory concept of the nation in the museum and were not particularly ready to see darker, difficult, or contested issues included in the national narrative.24

This indicates that in their traditional role national museums are expected to support the idea of a unitary national identity through their narrative and exhibits; or, as historian and museum scholar Simon Knell has put it, to provide “the scenography and stage for the performance of myths of nationhood.”25 However, results from the same 2012 survey showed that when prompted further many participants seemed to agree that national museums should also present the stories of everyday people, including minority groups, along with controversial aspects of history in order to engage visitors in thinking about multiple perspectives. How, then, can a national museum respond to the challenge of doing both?

Museum studies theorist Cristina Lleras discusses two main ways in which a national museum can make its exhibitions more inclusive: by introducing more stories, including unrecognized voices, while leaving the core unchanged; or by broadening the national narrative by incorporating more stories and social actors into the master narrative, leading to a transformation of the core.26 Given that transforming the master narrative is a daunting task frequently met with resistance by museum boards and staff, most national museums turn to the first option by either adding incrementally to the core or by staging temporary exhibitions (as we did in the case study discussed below). In 2010, for example, the National Museum of Colombia staged two temporary exhibitions aimed at broadening its focus by addressing the heritage of Afro-Colombian people. The exhibition Histories of a Cry: 200 Years of Being Colombian, mounted to commemorate the bicentennial of the country’s independence (2020), expanded the understanding of historical participation in the “birth” of the nation by bringing forth voices previously not included and by critiquing conventional narratives. Among other things the curators questioned the images (such as portraits of military and political leaders) associated with the “birth of the nation” that circulate extensively in Colombia and shape the ways in which people understand national history. For example, they placed an empty wardrobe under a series of women’s names, highlighting that women had actively participated in the independence process but had not had their portraits made. Additionally, a series of questions on the walls prompted visitors to think about how museum narratives are constructed and what is included or left out.27

Although inspiring, Histories of a Cry represented public history of and for the public rather than with the public. National museums are still rather reluctant to allow members (and non-members) of their audience curate public history exhibitions in their premises. “…stories behind History” at the National Historical Museum in Athens, attempted to do just that.

The history of the National Historical Museum (NHM) is linked to the founding of the Historical and Ethnological Society (henceforth, the Society) in 1882 by eminent Greek scholars of the time.28 In line with the dominant ideological mandate of the period aiming at establishing medieval (Byzantine) and modern Greek history as equal cohorts in a unified national narrative, the Society embarked on collecting “historical and ethnological material and objects for elucidating the middle and more recent history…of the Greek people and the establishment of a Museum.”29 The Society’s first exhibition, “Exhibition of the Monuments of the Holy Struggle,” was launched on March 25, 1884, to coincide with the national commemoration day of the 1821 Greek War of Independence. This exhibition led to the formation of what was then called the “Museum of the Historical and Ethnological Society.” Housed in one large room in the Athens Polytechnic School, visiting the museum was described as “a sacred pilgrimage” to the nation’s history, similar to visiting the National Archaeological Museum.30

The NHM was officially founded in 1926 as a private legal entity, financed both by the state and the Society. In 1960 it moved to its present home, the Old Parliamentary Building in the center of Athens, and opened to the public in 1962. The permanent exhibition was launched in the early 1960s and redisplayed in 1982 to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Society; since then it has remained largely untouched. The exhibition narrates the story of the Greek nation from 1453 (the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans) to 1940 (Greek–Italian war). Despite its stated objective, which includes the study of public and private life of the Greek nation, the museum retains a strong emphasis on military and political history narrated as a series of acts of great men illustrated by iconic objects such as flags, weapons, seals, personal memorabilia, and similar objects. In the words of historian Peter Aronsson, the displays are “populated with named heroes and their artefacts.”31 The tone is celebratory (the great events, the protagonists, the symbols) and evocative (of the spirit of the nation). Objects are displayed in a traditional manner with minimum text which is descriptive and academic in style. Interpretation is missing and the absence of women, children, and other social actors is deafening.

The sanctified exhibits of the NHM reflect a desire to keep away from what are perceived to be difficult or simply different aspects of heritage by retreating into a safe, neutral, and apolitical view of the past, described by Aronsson as a “strategy of exit.”32 Normally, national museums tend to portray a familiar narrative emphasizing the continuity of the national spirit through time. Consequently, reference to or representation of other themes or groups is either nonexistent or only occasionally addressed. This is clear in the displays of the NHM which may be seen as a site of pilgrimage to the heroic soul of the (male) ancestors: “These rooms contain the sacred of the sacred of the nation, they are Greece’s Greece!,” exclaimed the president of the Society in his speech at the museum’s inauguration in 1962.33 Exhibited objects act as symbols of national pride, entrusted with keeping alive the memory of great men and heroic times, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the canonized view of history.34 In this way, the NHM underpins official history and can be read as a companion to history textbooks. Not surprisingly, it is heavily attended by school groups. Many Greek visitors report that they feel “proud of their national identity as reflected through the ‘heroic’ history portrayed in the Museum.”35

To counteract the monolithic image of its permanent exhibition, the museum has implemented, over the past few years, a rigorous program of temporary exhibitions which expand the range of themes presented, adding to the core narrative of the permanent exhibition without altering it (as described above).36 This effort to uplift the museum’s austere image has also led to a revamped site and a social media presence. In 2017 the museum took another step forward when it allowed a group of students to intervene to its permanent galleries and stage “…stories behind History,” a temporary exhibition which is discussed in detail below.

The exhibition “…stories behind History” was on view at the NHM from June 28 to July 9, 2017. It was researched, planned, and set up by a group of twenty final year undergraduate students in the Department of Communication, Media and Culture of Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens as part of a workshop on exhibition planning and organization, which was taught by the author. “…stories behind History” was highly original as public history projects are rarely undertaken in national museums, especially by students.

Scope and Methodology

The project aimed to present aspects of Greek history in a new way, in order to help visitors reflect on, and question, stereotypical views of historic personalities and events. In the words of one of the students, our aim was “to tell the minor stories without touching the exhibition.”

The project of preparing the exhibition lasted for five months and was carried out both in class and in the museum. In the early stages students studied exhibition theory and became acquainted with the NHM. On their first visit to the museum they were guided through its permanent galleries by one of the museum curators. During this initial visit I asked them to observe the exhibits, pay attention to interesting stories as reported by the curator, take notes, and jot down objects and themes that caught their eye or fired their imagination. Initial thoughts and notes were discussed in class. There was consensus that the museum’s permanent galleries are old-fashioned and discriminatory, presenting a male version of events (“where are the women?” was a spontaneous question), and that the large number of exhibits tire visitors without offering a coherent narrative. In line with the traditional view of a national museum, some students noted that it is “reasonable” for “a historical museum of such an outstanding importance” to “have standard and outdated exhibitions.”37 They all agreed, however, that “the museum looked much more attractive through the supplementary comments and the small stories recounted by our guide.” One of them exclaimed: “The exhibition thirsts for life, for a breath. Let’s give it to it.”

Students identified several ways the museum could improve and update its interpretation: by narrating the history of the “unseen” (women, national groups, minorities); by emphasizing social history and personal stories rather than conflict (struggle, war) alone; and by discussing popular myths about the 1821 uprising. In short, all students showed an interest in topics that are not included in school history. There was also a common desire to question the museum’s presentation of national history. They asked, for example: to what extent are the heroes of the 1821 War of Independence elevated to godly status through the way their objects are displayed (for example, the beautified portraits, the weapons)? To what extent is the imagined national identity that the museum constructs built around the deification and the collective worship of those who were killed for the country? Do women share a part in the representation of collective identity and memory? Which is the most appropriate way to exhibit trophies of war in museums?

Students formed small teams, each of which was assigned specific tasks, an exhibition room, and a theme for research.38 Each team had to fill in a template with thoughts and ideas about the room and theme selected, along with possible sources of information from either inside or outside the museum. Additionally, students were ascribed reading lists and were asked to summarize the main points in writing. Bibliographic reports were assembled and edited by the research team before being made available for consultation to the whole group. At the end of this initial phase the team decided to focus on less known or neglected aspects of Greek history, to demystify deified historic figures and events, to reveal unknown stories about people and objects, and to adopt a nontraditional approach to differentiate our work from established official narratives (school, museums etc.) The class agreed that our intervention should promote critical thinking instead of a specific point of view.

The second phase involved thorough research, numerous visits to the museum, and collaboration with its curators to get help with the research and assess possible limitations to the project. Gradually, the list of themes, personalities, and objects was finalized, and interpretative media discussed. Extra care was given to design for a diverse range of experiences through a variety of media. At the end of this phase each team’s template was enriched with details on exhibition media (text, audio, video, hands-on) and ideas for implementation.

The final phase included writing the script, which was submitted to the museum for approval, writing texts, designing and producing audio-visuals, and installation.39 Museum curators kept a low profile during the process, only occasionally offering different approaches; some changes suggested by museum staff concerned practical matters rather than the philosophy of our intervention, which was fully endorsed by the museum director and members of the board. As a last note, the project was a very low-budget one, self-funded by the students through the earnings of a book sale.

Content, Interpretive Strategies, and Interpretive Media

From an initial list of thirty-seven objects and topics we finally came up with a twelve-stop exhibition route throughout the museum’s historical displays.40 Stops were clearly marked on a free leaflet-plus-floorplan, along with symbols indicating the kind of interpretive media used in each case. A thirty-two-second introductory video set the tone by posing a series of questions aimed at prompting visitors to think about history and wander around the NHM halls in search of their own answers: “Greek history—What comes to your mind when you hear these words?”; “Do you think you know everything about it?”; “Are there invisible aspects to it?”; “Do untold stories deserve to be presented?”; and “Have you ever thought why certain objects are turned into museum exhibits?” The exhibition was targeted to a general audience with a minimum interest in Greek history. Its philosophy and scope were made clear in the introductory text, the main part of which read:

…stories behind History
Small, unknown, or forgotten stories,
about people, events, and objects
which are connected to modern Greek history
but have stayed on the sidelines.
In a history written to celebrate war and heroic figures
we are interested in discovering
hidden stories, modest protagonists, humble objects.

In the next section I discuss representative examples of the main interpretive strategies and media used by the student curators.

Personalizing History

Museums are increasingly employing interpretive media which place an emphasis on multi-sensory experiences, as well as affective ways of learning to convey ideas about the past to their audiences. Personalizing history through graphic novels and audio “tales” as discussed in this section are examples of such an approach.

The period of the Latin occupation of Greece (1204 to fifteenth century) was identified from the start as one of the less known periods of Greek history.41 The most prominent exhibit in this room of the NHM is a series of very rare Venetian helmets from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, discovered in 1840 in a vaulted casemate in the fortress of Chalkis (captured from the Venetians by the Turks in 1470). The museum caption provides nothing more than a dry identification of the helmets on display. In order to put the helmets in context and connect them with real people from that time, the students created “A story between History and myth,” a graphic novel which recounted the siege and fall of Chalkis through the eyes of Felicia, a young noble woman. The facts were accurate, and the female character was based on the daughter of the city’s ruler Paolo Erizzo, official representative of Venice to the Ottoman empire.42 In the graphic novel script Felicia collects the helmets from the dead bodies of her father’s guard and as a sign of respect places them in a crypt in the wall before fleeing the city.43 The personalization of events through comic strips helped visitors see history through the eyes of people who existed in the past. In fact, graphic narratives have long been recognized as an intriguing way to transfer historical knowledge. Moreover, reducing complex events to individual experiences and adding fictional elements in historical presentations can help to increase the public understanding of the past.44

A graphic novel, mixing historical facts with fiction, narrated the story of a series of Venetian helmets. (Photo by the author)

A graphic novel, mixing historical facts with fiction, narrated the story of a series of Venetian helmets. (Photo by the author)

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The museum also holds a collection of figureheads, wooden sculptures carved on the end of the prow of a ship depicting mythical creatures of the sea, mermaids, or religious figures, serving as its emblem. In the early nineteenth century, Greek figureheads started depicting heroes of ancient Greek history and mythology as a way to symbolize the awakened national consciousness.45 The NHM’s collection includes figureheads from warships that fought in the 1821 War of Independence. Among them are those from the ships Ares of admiral Andreas Miaoulis and Agamemnon of Laskarina Bouboulina, celebrated female commander of the 1821 naval battles. Here our intervention took the form of two audio “tales” in which the figureheads narrated their story. Once again, the script was based on historical facts as they would have been recounted in first person by an eyewitness. To make the story more vivid sounds such as sea waves, the explosion of bombs, and water splashing were added to the audio “tales.”

Room 11 deals with late nineteenth century Greek political life, a significant part of which was dominated by Charilaos Trikoupis and Theodoros Deligiannis, prominent Greek politicians who succeeded one another several times as Prime Ministers of Greece and debated fiercely in Parliament.46 Displayed here is a painting depicting a parliamentary assembly with Trikoupis at the podium. In an effort to bring the painting to life and immerse visitors into that period’s atmosphere, we “staged” an audio episode from an 1893 parliamentary assembly as documented in the official minutes of the Greek Parliament. A female voice introduced the date and the setting, and then two male voices, “Trikoupis” and “Deligiannis,” debated over the Greek loan of the time. The recording was enriched with background voices, clapping, and moans as if in a real parliamentary assembly.

A ship’s figurehead narrates its story through an audio “tale” based on historical facts. (Photo by the author)

A ship’s figurehead narrates its story through an audio “tale” based on historical facts. (Photo by the author)

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Both audio exhibits were highly appreciated by visitors (see Discussion below). As I have argued elsewhere, auditory experiences provide vividness and a sense of immediacy while allowing ample space for imagination as listeners may visualize events and be immersed in the stories narrated. In this way absorption of information is enhanced.47

Unveiling History

As already noted, women are almost non-existent in the NHM’s version of Greek history. Exceptions include such prominent female figures as Laskarina Bouboulina, who was praised for her brave, fearless, and other male-associated qualities. Her portrait stands out in an endless array of male portraits. The text introducing this room reads:

Unseen heroines, unseen heroes
Take a look around you.
Is it only objects
and portraits of heroes of the Revolution
that represent this historic period?
Who are those
who were denied the right to
the country’s honor and gratitude?
Where are the women and the invisible heroes?

The students’ research brought to light the stories of seven women who played a significant role during the 1821 uprising but were absent from the museum. Each woman’s story was briefly sketched on the sides of a 10 cm x 10 cm cube, along with her portrait, if available. This was a low-budget interactive device which allowed visitors to turn the cubes around to read the stories (see figure 3). A supplementary caption noted (excerpt): “nineteenth-century historians do not think it is worth writing about women fighters. But are their stories not worth mentioning? Much information about these women has been lost forever. Yet, even the few things that are written down about them are revealing…Bouboulina ‘has a man’s poise,’ Moscho Tzavella ‘fights as a worthy lad.’ Why do praises of female fighters acclaim their virility?” The same technique was employed in the NHM’s section on Philhellene women in which six cubes briefly sketched the portrait of prominent European women who helped the 1821 Greek cause.48

Cubes were used as a low-budget interactive device to tell the stories of largely “invisible” women. (Photos by the author)

Cubes were used as a low-budget interactive device to tell the stories of largely “invisible” women. (Photos by the author)

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Questioning History

Approaches to controversial issues often involve interpretation from different perspectives, revealing opposing, sidelined, or forgotten aspects. Our idea was to allow visitors to encounter various aspects related to personalities, objects, and themes, instead of consuming a prescribed authoritative view. Visitors could thus consider all sides and reach their own conclusions (or not, and realize how difficult it sometimes is to arrive at definite answers). Questions were normally employed as a trigger for contemplation. Examples of this strategy included our approach to Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople and Ioannis Capodistrias.

Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople (1746–1821) was a well-known and much respected figure of modern Greek history. He served as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople several times between 1797 and 1821. At the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence he excommunicated the revolutionaries, allegedly to protect the Greeks of Constantinople from reprisals by the Ottomans. Despite that, however, he was accused of being a supporter of the Greek uprising and was hanged outside the Patriarchal cathedral in April 1821.49 He is commemorated by the Greek Orthodox Church as a martyr of the nation (Ethnomartyr). Here the introductory text began by asking: “Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople (1746–1821)How well do you know him?” After a brief biography, the text concluded: “He still puzzles historians to this date.” Visitors were then asked to contemplate the following questions: “Defender of the vested rights of the Church? Defender of subjugated Hellenism? Or perhaps both in different ways?” A series of dissenting opinions on the Patriarch were available for consultation at a stand nearby in print form.

After a long and distinguished career in European diplomacy and politics, including the post of Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, Count Ioannis Capodistrias (born at Corfu in 1776) became the first governor of independent Greece in 1827. His administration was marked by a painstaking effort to organize the country’s institutions which sometimes resulted in him being accused of autocratic behavior. He was assassinated in Nafplio, then capital of Greece, in 1831, by opponents of his politics. The controversial nature of Capodistrias’s tenure was presented through two lenses: things he said, and things others said of him and his personality. Contentious points were presented in a fifteen-page dossier with facts and views on Capodistrias, and visitors were again confronted with a question: Autocratic or patriotic?

In the section on Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople (1746-1821) visitors were confronted with a series of dissenting opinions on him. (Photo by the author)

In the section on Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople (1746-1821) visitors were confronted with a series of dissenting opinions on him. (Photo by the author)

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Questioning the established view of history also worked in another way, as illustrated by the next two examples. The first is about an infamous slogan. In December 1893 the Greek Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis allegedly said: “Regretfully, we are bankrupt,” denoting Greece’s financial collapse at the time. However, according to the official minutes of the Greek Parliament, this phrase was never uttered by Trikoupis in the Parliament room.50 So, in the related text the students asked: “Are there other words that were never spoken? Are there any other events we never learned about?”

The second example in this category was about war spoils. Displayed in room 12 of the NHM is a series of Turkish flags from the Balkan Wars (1912–13). Neither object nor story was presented by the student team here; just an introductory text which aimed at interrogating the morality behind exhibiting trophies of war:

Spoils of war
Monuments to the winner’s power,
proof of the opponent’s rout.
They are exhibited in museums around the world.
They strengthen national pride.
Is it justifiable to display spoils of war?

Interestingly, an entry to the visitors’ book read: “As for the last question: Yes, because they [war spoils] are part of History.” By inviting the public to participate in a conversation using questions, we can engage them in a dialogue with objects, people, and documents of the past so that they can start making meaning out of it.

Object Stories

Bringing object stories to light was one of the exhibition’s aims. Examples included a tambourine, a fountain pen, armaments, and a golden ring.

The tambourine of general Makriyiannis,51 one of the oldest surviving musical instruments in modern Greek history, was made in 1835. In 1926 his son donated it to the NHM but was kept in storage for decades due to its fragile condition. In 1994 the tambourine was conserved, restored, and played again in a special event in the Old Parliament’s central hall, before finding its permanent display place in the museum’s galleries. The museum’s caption of the tambourine does not refer to either the object’s biography or its importance. Students created text that told the object’s story presented next to its display, while the sound of the tambourine was continuously heard through an audio device hidden next to the display case. To support our intervention five well-known folk songs of the early nineteenth century were recorded with an accurate replica of the instrument. This was a unique opportunity to listen to tunes that general Makriyiannis himself may have played and was highly welcomed by visitors, many of whom would like to see the songs included in the permanent exhibition. A comment in the visitors’ book read: “Makriyiannis’ tambourine should not stop sounding in this place.”

The final room in the main part of the museum includes a section on Eleftherios Venizelos, one of Greece’s most esteemed politicians.52 Displayed here is the fountain pen with which he signed the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). Students selected the pen as an example of the transformation that occurs when humble objects enter the trajectory of history and end up in museum exhibitions as symbols of important events. The text read as follows:

A simple fountain pen writes history…
Have you ever thought
that simple, everyday objects
acquire special meaning and value
when they are witnesses to historic events?
This fountain pen
would have remained a simple pen
and would most probably not be here,
had not Eleftherios Venizelos signed
the Treaty of Sèvres (28/7/1920) with it,
officially putting an end to World War I for Greece.

We also wanted to point out how notions of “national” may often be misleading. Most people, for instance, would take objects connected to heroic fathers of the nation, such as weapons of the fighters of the Greek War of Independence, to be the most important symbols of nationalism. Yet many of these celebrated weapons had multicultural origins. Prominent examples are the displayed armaments of General Theodoros Kolokotronis, perhaps the most respected personality of the 1821 uprising.53 His helmet was British, a remnant from his tenure in the regiment of Greek volunteers in the British Army (1810-16), with the British coat of arms, a lion, replaced with the Orthodox cross. His breastplate was from Bosnia and initially depicted mosques on which were later added Orthodox crosses, and so on. Kolokotronis’s weapons were Christianized to fit his faith.

Finally, music was used to place objects in place and time and to evoke an atmosphere. Displayed in room 10 are some personal objects that belonged to Ioannis Capodistrias. Among them is a golden ring depicting a butterfly burning into flames, an accurate copy of one that he is believed to have offered to Princess Roxandra Stourdza as an allegory of eternal yet unfulfilled love.54 The two had a romance, and legend has it that Roxandra often played one of Capodistrias’s favorite pieces, Beethoven’s sonata Les Adieux, on the piano.55 This melancholic piece, evoking the end of their platonic affair, was chosen as a musical background to give a sense of the governor’s intimate side.56 His contested political life was dealt with in a different manner as already discussed.

Discovering History and Hands-on History

Questions were primarily employed as a trigger for contemplation. But they were also used to provoke curiosity about unknown or neglected themes. As already discussed, for instance, most Greeks have a hazy knowledge of the period of the Latin occupation of Greece. We wanted to make visitors aware of this lacuna and prompt them to discover more on that period either in this very room (see above) or outside the museum. Thus, the introductory text read as follows:

A period rich in history.
But what do we know about it?
What really happened during that period?
What is it that reminds us of the Latin conquerors today?

Questions were further used to spark the discovery of small unknown stories. For instance, “Did you know that one of the largest and most important armories of the Ottoman Empire was housed in a Byzantine church?” or “Did you know that Miguel de Cervantes fought in the naval battle at Navarino?” Answers were provided on the spot but were also printed on the back side of paper bookmarks, designed by one of the students, that were available to visitors as a free souvenir.

The front side (reading:…stories behind History) of the paper bookmarks that were available to visitors as a free souvenir. Different “fun-facts” were printed on the back side. (Photo by the author)

The front side (reading:…stories behind History) of the paper bookmarks that were available to visitors as a free souvenir. Different “fun-facts” were printed on the back side. (Photo by the author)

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Low-budget simple interactives included a drawer with copies of old newspapers. (Photo by the author)

Low-budget simple interactives included a drawer with copies of old newspapers. (Photo by the author)

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The strategy of “discovering history” was enhanced by simple, low-budget interactive devices such as the cubes already discussed, drawers with “hidden” information, dossiers to browse through, and magnifying glasses.

Due to its limited duration in July, a summer month during which museum attendance is usually low, the exhibition did not attract the media, apart from a positive ten-minute segment by one of the main state TV channels in its weekly cultural review. However, word of mouth and extensive promotion in social media were enough to attract approximately three hundred visitors within twelve days. Their comments in the visitors’ book were revealing of the audience’s thirst for such approaches.

The Audience

“…stories behind History” was praised as “a fresh, critical look that renewed the classic narration” and unveiled “the small stories that eventually form big History.”57 Most entries in the visitors’ book described it as “well-targeted,” “clever,” “informative,” “objective,” “innovative,” and “invigorating,” or in short as “inspired, varied, friendly, at times fun, not boring at all.” Many people also commented on the “excellent choice of exhibits to highlight” and noted that “the presentation has tempo, feeling, [and] leads to contemplation.”

There was a general agreement that “this intervention gave another meaning to events and personalities” and that in this way “the museum became more interesting.” Moreover, some visitors seemed pleased by the “unveiling history” approach: “I was glad to see invisible women, Greek and foreign, brought to light,” or “at last the female contribution is revealed.” One visitor welcomed “this unique approach to a museum that I ‘hated’ when I visited with school years ago.”

The variety of interpretive media was particularly valued: “the stories were nicely presented in different ways so as to pique visitors’ curiosity” or “[this was] a creative and inventive” approach “that made us spend two hours in the museum without realizing how much time passed since we were completely absorbed by the audio stories.” The following comment, in particular, captures the success of our “personalizing history” approach: “The acoustic excerpts helped us grasp historic events much more clearly, while the imaginary stories were particularly successful in placing us into the mood of the time.” This was reinforced by comments such as “lively presentation” that “really brings the museum to life,” or “you made a whole world come to life.” Finally, a team from a summer camp wrote: “children loved it because the exhibits were presented in “their” language.”

Our approach to history was highly appreciated; visitors wrote, “excellent work that makes history learning easy and pleasant” and “frankly, visiting the museum in this way is fun and friendly.” Two comments were especially rewarding and confirmed that our exhibition did actually provide food for thought: “[it] trained us to look at history in a different way” and “it leads youngsters and grownups to raise questions that they will surely elaborate outside the museum. Thank you for this!” Overall, visitors agreed that these were “good interventions that are really needed in the museum” and wished that they “could stay in the museum” and “be incorporated into the permanent exhibition.”

The Museum

As already mentioned, the NHM’s curators had a discreet, sometimes a bit nervous, but steadily supportive presence during the process. Despite some inevitable tensions during the installation phase, they all admitted that our work helped them take a fresh look at the museum and reconsider their beliefs. One of them wrote: “Working with the students was a lovely experience. An outcome with such limited means, but [inspired by] creativity and passion, is truly impressive. Thank you for your alternative perspective and refreshing glance.”

The Students

The opportunity to participate in a public history exhibition was valuable to students. One of them wrote in her final report:

At the beginning I was rather surprised by the choice of the museum and the exhibition’s theme, because history is not one of my favorite subjects, while the idea of an intervention to the permanent galleries seemed to not provide us with enough creativity and freedom of expression. As soon as brainstorming started, though, and I saw all the new ideas and the fresh look with which we could dress up this old and conservative institution, the wheels started to spin, and my enthusiasm arose.

Although extremely demanding, stressful, and at times painful, the experience was evaluated highly by all students on many levels: exhibition theory and practice, research skills, new appreciation of history, organization skills, soft skills. For example, “I appreciated…what scientific documented research is” or

I found the exhibition’s theme (and the museum) rather “heavy” and difficult for us. But the fact that we made it and everyone managed to find their way around research, to learn, to express themselves and to have fun…makes the whole endeavor extremely successful…Apart from a good lesson in exhibition planning and design, this was also a good lesson in collaboration, mutual respect, composure, patience, consistency, professionalism, and above all maturity [emphasis in the original].

Capturing the sense of pride and accomplishment of the whole team at the end of the project, a student wrote: “I can now say with certainty that I would go through the whole process again without a second thought,” while a remarkable comment came from a young male student: “[We had] the opportunity to intervene in a feminist and critical way to the patriarchal museum par excellence. This is an important victory, no? At least, I feel proud that I did this at my twenty-two years of age!”

Final Notes

This paper has advocated for a more inclusive view of public history that offers the possibility of a participatory approach in which public constituencies have a direct engagement in the production, reception, and interpretation of history. According to this view, the interpretive and meaning-making process is shared and co-constructed among many stakeholders.

One of the key components of public history is relevance. To make the past relevant we first need to pose socially and personally meaningful questions. And to truly involve our audience, we must present the past on a human scale. We need to populate the past with human agency, that is with real people, ordinary and extraordinary; narrate their stories, connect with them on an emotional level, make them feel real.58 The experience from our temporary exhibition at the National Historical Museum in Athens has shown that even if the core exhibition narrative remains untouched, exposure to alternative narratives of history is of great value to all parties involved. In this way public history may reach out to people who are ordinarily excluded from academic historiography. Making history more accessible to wider audiences and allowing various stakeholders to cooperate with history museums for the development of exhibitions and/or programmes may lead to meaningful learning and heightened historical sensibilities.

As learning theorists have suggested, learning is a dialogue between the individual and his or her environment which may be understood as an effort to make meaning of the world.59 Seen under this light, public history can be conceptualized as an open dialogue with the past. When this dialogue is facilitated in a national museum, a showcase of the nation par excellence, the benefits are significant for all sides involved: the public group who takes the lead, the museum which hosts, and the audience who attends.

In our project, the students were encouraged to question historical representations and were trained to look at history in a different way. By engaging in this type of thinking, they were able to recognize that museum displays provide only one source of information about the past and that “history” is always open to interpretation. The students could then transform this new way of reading history into a series of exhibits and stories that could make Greek history more relevant to contemporary audiences. As discussed in previous sections, this was not an easy exercise. But, helping parts of our public become engaged in history not as a simple series of events but also as a way of understanding the past as human, troubled, and dubious, should perhaps be mandatory for history museums.


A comprehensive account of this debate is beyond the scope of this paper. For a general introduction see Irmgard Zündorf, “Contemporary History and Public History,” Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte (2017),, which summarizes the diverse definitions of public history and its institutional progress in various countries. For more wide-ranging accounts on the history, theory, and practice of public history see Barbara Howe and Emory Leland Kemp, eds., Public History: An Introduction (Malabar, FL: Kreiger Publishing Co., 1986); James B. Gardner, Public History: Essays from the Field (Malabar, FL: Kreiger Publishing Co., 1999); Hilda Kean and Paul Martin, eds., The Public History Reader (London: Routledge 2013); Faye Sayer, Public History: A Practical Guide (London: Bloomsbury 2015); Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook of Practice (London & New York: Routledge 2016); Cherstin Lyon, Elizabeth Nix, and Rebecca Shrum, eds., Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017); David Dean, ed., A Companion to Public History (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2018); Paula Hamilton and James B. Gardner, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Public History (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018); Haris Exertzoglou, Public History: An Introduction (Athens: Publications of the 21st, 2020) [in Greek].


Denise Meringolo, “A New Kind of Technician: In Search of the Culture of Public History,” in Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Towards a New Genealogy of Public History, ed. Meringolo (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xiii-xxxii, describes the tension between the “public” and the “history” components of the term as debated in the US.


Robert Kelley, “Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects,” The Public Historian 1, no. 2 (October 1978): 16.


John Tosh, “Public History, Civic Engagement and the Historical Profession in Britain,” History 99, no. 335 (April 2014): 192.


Cited by Barbara Korte and Sylvia Paletschek “Historical Edutainment: New Forms and Practices of Popular History?” in Mario Carretero, Stefan Berger, and Maria Grever, eds., Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2017), 192–93 (first quotation); Jill Liddington, “What Is Public History? Publics and Their Pasts, Meanings and Practices,” Oral History 30, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 84 (second quotation).


Effie Gazi, “Claiming History: Debating the Past in the Present,” historein no. 4 (2004): 9.


Thomas Wood, “Museums and the Public: Doing History Together,” Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995): 1113.


Barbara Franco, “Public History and Memory: A Museum Perspective,” The Public Historian 19, no. 2 (April 1997): 65.


Tosh, “Public history,” 191 (first quotation); Meghan O’Brien Backhouse, “Re-enacting the Wars of the Roses: History and Identity” in People and their Pasts: Public History Today, ed. Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2009), 114 (second quotation).


Hilda Kean and Paul Martin, The Public History Reader (London: Routledge 2013). In this sense “public history” has sometimes been used as an umbrella accommodating other similar terms such as “applied history,” “popular history,” and “people’s history.”


Anna Adamek and Emily Gann, “Whose Artifacts? Whose Stories? Public History and Representation of Women at the Canada Science and Technology Museum,” Historia Critica no. 68 (2018), 50.


Also known as “history from below” or “bottom-up history,” grassroots history usually involves projects run by local societies, community groups, or individuals, not initiated by professionals. Despite the popularity of community public history projects, especially in the United States and the UK, community members usually act as participants in advisory groups during the development phase or, at best, as members of exhibition teams. See, for example, Franco, Decentralizing Culture: Public History and Communities (Oxford Handbooks Online, 2017), 69–88; Benjamin Filene, “History Museums and Identity: Finding ‘Them,’ ‘Me,’ and ‘Us’ in the Gallery,” in Hamilton and Gardner, The Oxford Handbook, 328–51.


Lyle Dick, “Public History in Canada: An Introduction,” The Public Historian 31, no. 1 (February 2009), 7.


These topics are elaborated elsewhere. See, among many, Dick, “Public History”; Tosh, “Public History”; Zündorf, “Contemporary History”; Exertzoglou, “Public History”; Ellie Lemonidou, “Public History: International Experience and the Greek Example,” in Public History in Greece: Uses and Abuses of History, ed. Andreas Andreou, Spyros Kakouriotis, Giorgos Kokkinos, Ellie Lemonidou, Zeta Papandreou, and Eleni Paschaloudi (Athens: Epikentro 2015), 83–98 [in Greek].


The conference main themes were elaborated in Historein 4 (2003),


Lemonidou, “Public History,” 86–89. For an elucidating collection of essays on the above topics see Andreou et al., “Public History in Greece.” See also Charis Athanassiades, The Withdrawn Books: Nation and School History in Greece 1858-2008 (Athens: Alexandria, 2015) [in Greek].


Of course, the relationship between academic and public history need not be mutually exclusive. Zündorf, Contemporary History, for instance, discusses how academic and public history may become more entangled. For more on the diversity of public history presentations, see Adamek and Gann, “Whose Artifacts? Whose Stories?,” 50.


Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York, 1990).


David Boswel and Jessica Evans, eds., Representing the Nation: A Reader. History, Heritage and Museums (London: Routledge 1999); Simon Knell, Peter Aronsson, and Arne Bugge Amundsen, eds., National Museums: New Studies from Around the World (London: Routledge 2011).


Peter Aronsson and Magdalena Hillstörm, eds., NaMu, Making National Museums Program: Setting the Frames (Linköping: LiU E-Press, 2007); Peter Aronsson and Andreas Nyblom, eds., Comparing: National Museums, Territories, Nation-building and Change (Linköping: LiU E-Press, 2008); Peter Aronsson and Gabriela Elgenius, eds., Building National Museums in Europe 1750–2010 (Linköping: LiU E-Press, 2011); Peter Aronsson, “Explaining National Museums: Exploring Comparative Approaches to the Study of National Museums,” in Knell et al., National Museums, 29–54; Simon Knell, “National Museums and National Imagination” in Knell et al., National Museums, 3–28; Dominique Poulot, Felicity Bodenstein, and José Maria Lanzarotte Guiral, eds., Great Narratives of the Past: Traditions and Revisions in National Museums (Linköping: LiU E-Press, 2012); Alexandra Bounia and Andromache Gazi, eds., National Museums in Southern Europe: History and Perspectives (Athens: Kaleidoskopio 2012) [in Greek].


Alexandra Bounia, Alexandra Nikiforidou, Niki Nikonanou, and Albert Dicran Matossian, Voices from the Museum: Survey Research in Europe’s National Museums (Linköping: LiU E-Press, 2012).


Bounia et al., Voices from the Museum, 12–20; Jocelyn Dodd, Ceri Jones, Andrew Sawyer, and Maria-Anna Tseliou, Voices from the Museum: Qualitative Research Conducted in Europe’s National Museums (Linköping: LiU E-Press, 2012).


Dodd et al., Voices from the Museum, 19.


Knell, “National Museums and National Imagination,” 5.


Cristina Lleras, “National Museums, National Narratives, and Identity Politics” in Hamilton and Gardner, The Oxford Handbook of Public History, 355–56.


Lleras, “National Museum,” 356–59.


Τakis Lappas, The 100 Years of the Historical and Ethnographical Society and its Museum 1882-1982 (Athens: Historical and Ethnographical Society, 1982); Char. Demakopoulou, The Foundation of the Historical and Ethnographical Society of Greece (Athens: no publisher, 1982) [both in Greek]. For a synopsis of the NHM’s history in English see Despina Catapoti, “A Nationalist Palimpsest: Authoring the History of the Greek Nation Through Alternative Museum Narratives” in Poulot, Bodestein, and Lanzarotte Guiral, Great Narratives, 133–68.


Royal Decree of 27-3-1889, “On the approval of the statutes of the Historical and Ethnological Society in Greece.”


Ioannis Mazarakis-Ainian, “The History of the Museum,” H KATHIMERINI-Epta Imeres, special issue “The National Historical Museum” (May 1994): 5, first quotation [in Greek]; Andromache Gazi, “National Museums in Greece: History, Ideology, Narratives” in Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010. Conference proceedings from EuNaMus, European National Museums: Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen, ed. Peter Aronsson & Gabriella Elgenius (Linköping: LUP 2011), 389–391,


Aronsson, “Explaining National Museums,” 33.


Aronsson, “Explaining National Museums,” 53.


Lappas, The 100 Years of the Historical and Ethnographical Society, 38.


See also Gazi, “National Museums in Greece,” 389–91.


Dodd et al., “Voices of the Museum,” 139.


Like the 2020 exhibition The ‘21 differently: The Greek Revolution with PLAYMOBIL Figures and Dioramas, an inventive approach to the 1821 Greek Revolution through twenty dioramas populated with more than 1300 PLAYMOBIL figures (Greek men and women, Philhellenes, Ottomans) and accessories presenting scenes and episodes from that period, constructed by a group of private collectors. Or the 2014-15 Imagining the Balkans, Identities and Memory in the Long 19th century exhibition, which was the result of a UNESCO-funded collaboration project among Balkan countries, coordinated by the NHM, aiming to explore the emergence of modern national identities and national states in nineteenth century Balkans.


For reasons of brevity student names/initials are omitted from this account.


Project management; research and documentation; exhibition brief and curation; texts; audio-visual production; graphic design; sponsorship; communication and social media; production; project documentation.


All exhibition text was written by the students and was in Greek only. Translations in the text are by the author.


The Museum’s Folk gallery was excluded.


Latins was the name given to Catholic rulers (Franks, Venetians, Genoans, Catalans, Templars, and others), who took control of Greek areas from 1204 (fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade) to the fifteenth century approximately. In some areas, such as the Cyclades and Crete, Latin rule lasted until the eighteenth century. For a general introduction see Peter Lock, The Franks in the Aegean, 1204-1500 (London: Routledge 1995); Nickiphoros I. Tsougarakis and Peter Lock, eds., A Companion to Latin Greece (Leiden: Brill 2014).


Anna Vatikalou, “The Chronicle of the Siege and the Fall of Negroponte by the Ottomans (1470) on the Basis of Italian Sources” (MA Thesis, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, 2018), [in Greek].


Only fifteen women are reported to have survived the fall of the city and fled to Venice. In reality Erizzo’s daughter was slaughtered by the Ottomans along with all members of her family.


Kees Ribbens, “Popular Understandings of the Past: Interpreting History through Graphic Novels” in Hamilton and Gardner, The Oxford Handbook of Public History, 105–23.


National Historical Museum. Its History and Collections (Athens: Historical and Ethnological Society 2015), 23–27 [in Greek].


Charilaos Trikoupis (1832-96), considered as one of the greatest modern Greek politicians, served as prime minister seven times from 1875 to 1895. He reformed the Greek political system, introduced large technical projects such as the digging of the Corinth Canal, and promoted the growth of the country. However, under his lead Greece went bankrupt in 1893 (see below). For an inclusive biography see Lydia Tricha, Charilaos Trikoupis (Athens: Polis 2016) [in Greek]. Theodoros Deligiannis (1820-1905) served as prime minister of Greece five times from 1885 to 1905.


Andromache Gazi, “Oral Testimonies as Independent Museum Exhibits. A Case-Study from the Industrial Museum in Athens,” The Oral History Review 46, no. 1 (2019): 26–47.


Such as Juliette Récamier (1777-1849), Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance (1785-1854), or Anna Eynard-Lullin (1793-1868).


His body was much later interred in the Cathedral of Athens.


The phrase was duly exploited by Trikoupis’s opponents and the press to accuse him of the country’s bankruptcy; see Tricha, Charilaos Trikoupis.


General Makriynannis was one of the most important and discussed figures of the struggle for Greek independence and of the Greek nineteenth century in general. See Nikos Theotokas, The Life of General Makriynannis (Athens: Vivliorama, 2012) [in Greek].


See, among many, Paschalis Kitromilides, ed., Eleftherios Venizelos: The Trials of Statesmanship (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2006); Nikolaos Papadakis, Eleftherios Venizelos: A Biography (Chania: National Research Foundation “Eleftherios K. Venizelos,” 2006).


Theodoros Kolokotronis (1770-1843) was the most prominent protagonist of the 1821 Greek War of Independence and a respective figure in Greek politics after the country’s liberation from the Ottomans. For a biographical note in English see Dimitris Keridis, Historical Dictionary of Modern Greece (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2009).


Princess Roxandra Sturdza (1786-1844) was a well-educated philanthropist of Greek-Moldavian origin. She met Capodistrias when she was a court lady at the Russian Court, and he was Russia’s Foreign Minister.


Beethoven’s Sonata no.26 in E flat major, Op.81a, Les Adieux.


When she was forced to marry and Capodistrias came to Greece after accepting the position of the country’s first head.


All entries in this section some from the visitors’ book, unless otherwise stated. Translation by the author.


James Gardner, “Contested Terrain: History, Museums, and the Public,” The Public Historian 26, no. 4 (September 2004): 16.


John Falk and Lynn Dierking, Learning from Museums (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press 2000), 136.