THE news that the antiquities department is going to work with the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles partly to look at ways of improving the visitors’ experience of our ancient sites is welcome but long, long overdue.
With our monuments such as Curium and the Paphos mosaics, we Cypriots tend to scoff at the ‘pile of rocks’ the British call Stonehenge. Unadorned stone slabs cannot compare with intricate mosaics and carved columns, the argument goes. But when it comes to bringing alive ancient history, Stonehenge is by far the better place to visit.
It’s a truism to say that the further back in time you go, the more unknowable the past becomes. This means that the vast majority of us who are not part of the archaeological elite need all the help we can get to grasp the true significance of what we see. With its audiovisual guides, its interactive tools, its determination to explain the ancient past, Stonehenge achieves just that. Let’s put it this way, school children enjoy their visits.
The same cannot be said of a school trip to Curium or the Paphos mosaics. Densely printed signs in black and white, meagre in number and either too skimpy in information, or too obtuse are no real aid to understanding. The visitors’ centres — in so far as they exist — are underutilised, providing very little by way of context and explanation. What restive child, or even interested adult, can come away with any real understanding of the rich history they just experienced?
What passes for gift shops consist of little more than a single glass case containing hefty tomes on Cyprus archaeology and perhaps a few pieces of overpriced pottery or jewellery. Compare that to the well-stocked — sometimes overwhelmingly so — gift shops at historical sites elsewhere in Europe. Themed souvenirs from the cheap and tacky to the pricey and hand-crafted cater to all tastes and budgets and often provide work to local artisans. The shops become an integral part of the visit, enrich the visitor experience and are a huge source of revenue, with some of the proceeds being put back into maintaining the site.
It all makes perfect economic and cultural sense. Like countless heads of the now defunct Cyprus Tourism Organisation before him, the new deputy minister of tourism has stressed the need to broaden the tourism sector. The answers to part of that — the sites themselves — are already there. They just need sprucing up. More tourists would visit them willingly and spend more money when they do.
Archaeologists can tend to be an elitist bunch and often seem to believe that a clear explanation equals an inexcusable dumbing down, so perhaps the antiquities department is reluctant to condone what they might argue is the simplification and Disneyfication of our history. We can only hope that the Getty Conservation Institute persuades them otherwise.