Sunday, July 06, 2008

High-tech access for heritage sites

While in Greece I noticed that some cultural sites and museums were not opened at the advertised times. According to a recent media report, this is an embarrassment to the Greek government ("Run-down heritage sites embarrass the Greeks", Helena Smith, The Guardian, June 23, 2008). The solution given in the article was longer opening hours and more staff, but I am not sure that is the correct approach.

The sites tend to open early in the morning and close in the afternoon (8am to 3pm). The media article claimed this was due to public servant working hours. But in the hotter months, it makes sense to be outdoors during the cooler early parts of the day. If the outdoor sites were open in the hottest parts of the afternoon, many tourists, particularly those getting off air conditioned cruise ships, would suffer in the heat.

One tip I do have for tourists to Delphi, and similar places in the hotter months, is to tour the outdoor sites as soon as they open in the morning. You usually have an hour of the monuments to yourself between 8 and 9 am, before the tour buses arrive. Then when it starts to get hot, go indoors to the air conditioned museums.

Don't be put off by the gates being closed. At a few sites the staff did not get around to opening until they saw they had some customers. In one case the gates were firmly locked and no staff were about. But after a five minute visit to the adjacent souvenir store, the site was then open (with some of the people who were sitting in the store now on site).

At the excellent Folklife and Ethnological Museum of Macedonia at Thrace, there was a sign on the side gate pointing to the front door, and a sign on the front door which said it was closed. Going back to the side door, there appeared to be people in there and having gone in I found the museum open with several staff waiting to assist. One staff member then went around turning on video introductions and interactive displays. On exiting I noticed the sign on the side gate had been changed to say to enter there.

More use could be made of computers and technology at major Greek cultural sites. In particular the Athens Acropolis needs something to stop it crumbling under the feet of thousands of tourists and to give them better access. Even the path marked for disabled users is made of slippery and uneven marble, polished smooth by many feet.

People Movers for the Acropolis

One solution for the Acropolis would be to install small automatic people movers. These would be a high tech version of the tourist trains commonly used to ferry tourists around the streets. In place of the noisy diesel engine they would have electric power. The units could run on a safe low voltage electric track, or be battery powered on rubber tires, or a combination of both.

This would require minimal alteration to the site and cause far less damage than have tourists wandering everywhere. Staff costs would be reduced and the individual cars could be equipped with commentary in different languages. Using computer control each car could be individually controlled, so that tourists would not have to wait for a whole train to be full.

Web Displays for Greek Museums

Another useful feature would be to provide more computer based displays for the museums. This would allow for more languages to be provided. The Folklife and Ethnological Museum of Macedonia had an excellent display of the history of the pot in greece, but all of the captions were only in Greek. The information could also be placed on the web for information. The Hellenic Ministry of Culture has attempted to provide details of museums on their web site. But this is a very large task. Being able to use the same information in the museum and on the web would make the task much easier. The Wikipedia has also attempted to catalog Greek museums, and it might make sense to combine the two efforts.

Online information for museums could be downloaded into the visitor's mobile phone. Existing web based services could translate the captions into any of dozens of languages and the result could even be turned into an audio commentary automatically. These are all features which major museums already have, but are prohibitively expensive to develop for every display in minor museums. However, free web based services can now be used to provide it if the museum information is on the web.

Cafes at Museums

One surprising lack in most Greek museums and monumental sites site is a cafe. Apart from the
National Archaeological Museum of Athens
which has a cafe with a courtyard which is a work of art in itself and the Delphi Archaeological Museum with an outdoor cafe, most Greek museums do not have cafes. The traditional approach seems to be to have the cafes outside the gate. However, better integration might help keep the sites open longer and cover the costs.

No comments: