The Benaki Museum is a museum focusing on Greek art. It is situated in the center of Athens, and was established in 1930. Its founder, Antonis Benakis, set up the museum to honor the memory of his father, Emmanuel. Since 2000, the museum’s collection has been split, with the main building concentrating on Greek culture and satellite museums displaying collections with other themes.
In 1931, just one year after the museum was established, its collection was greatly expanded. This occurred when the Benakis family gifted almost 40,000 objects dealing with the Byzantine and Islamic periods to the organization, along with the family home in downtown Athens. This was not the primary Benakis residence, as the family generally resided in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The museum has remained in this location, close to the National Gardens, ever since.
Benakis himself continued to play an active role in the management of the museum until he died in the mid 1950s. By this time, however, the museum was sufficiently well known and respected that donations continued to arrive from elsewhere. By the 1970s, the number of pieces from the Benakis family alone was already staggering with many more being added from outside sources.
Reopening and Reorganization
In the 1990s, the museum’s building was badly damaged by an earthquake, and this gave the owners the opportunity to carry out a major restructuring. Around $20 million was spent in restoring the fabric of the building and some of the artwork which had been damaged. This also brought about a change which had first been suggested over a quarter of a century earlier; the idea that the central museum should focus entirely on Greek history and culture through the ages.
The Benaki Museum finally reopened in 2000, and the moving of non-Greek collections such as Chinese porcelain and Islamic artworks to the new satellite museums provided space for more Greek art. Angelos Delivorrias, who had been the driving force behind the idea of the reorganization in 1973, was still in his post at the time of the reopening, having never given up on his vision.
During Delivorrias’s tenure as director, the museum added tens of thousands of new artifacts to its collections. The museum purchased some of these outright, although others were donations. Delivorras was determined to ensure that the Greek public would participate in museum activities. Additionally, some of the treasures have been allowed to tour abroad. More recently, displays have been put on in locations as widely spread as Canada and Australia.
The most important of the Benaki Museum’s satellites is the Islamic Art Museum, which opened just before the Athens Olympics in 2004. With more than 10,000 square feet of display space, this museum showcases a wide variety of exhibits including armor, gold, ceramics, and textile work. Its collections range widely through history, including both early works from the infancy of Islam in the seventh century and an important collection of Ottoman pieces from almost a thousand years later.