Picture the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is a new museum. A beautiful space, big and bright. The floor is glass, not tile, and underneath you see the ongoing excavation of a 2500 year-old part of Athens. Baths and bakeries, wells and houses, just a few meters below where you stand. People lived and worked there once.
The museum itself is a celebration of the ancient world. The exhibits have space to breathe, everything is neatly labeled, big and colourful posters explain ancient Athens to young children in simple English and Greek. The exterior walls are all glass and in the North the Acropolis itself rises, white and timeless.
Now picture a specific exhibit. On the first floor, just to the right of the stairs, is a display on ancient tools and building materials. A free-standing case holds replicas of various tools: chisels, hammers, pliers, drills… at least twenty or thirty different tools. They are all made from smooth, dark metal with an occasional bit of wood here and there. Above them you see about six or seven roughly-hewn lumps of marble. They are the different types of marble that were used in building the Acropolis.
Now, picture a little girl entering the image. She’s about five or six, blonde curly hair, as cute as can be. American. With her is her mom. She’s a woman in her late thirties, her hair is blonde too (although the colour might not be entirely natural), she’s wearing a stylish jeans jacket and high heels. You might know the type.
Have you got all that? The museum with the Acropolis beyond. The bright, huge spaces. The exhibit, the girl and her mother.
Okay. You might want to sit down now. Are you sitting? Good.
“Why,” asks the little girl, “are there rocks above all those tools?”
“Well,” answers her mother, “back then they didn’t have any tools, so these rocks are what they used. And underneath you see what we have nowadays.”
And I stand there, mouth agape, and wonder whether I should say something. In the end I don’t, because I don’t think “I’m sorry little girl, but your mother is a complete moron” would have gone down well with either of them. But the story won’t leave my head. Not only because it is, in its own painful way, fairly hilarious, but also because it makes my heart ache to know that there are people in the world who are incapable of appreciating or even comprehending their own past.