Corfu’s iconic Asian Art Museum

Lucky to be in Corfu before crossing to Albania to visit different archaeological projects. I spend my free afternoon visiting old haunts and reflecting on this historic city and the idyllic island taking its name.

Corfu was magical in the time of the Durrells. Parts of it still are. Blissfully situated in the northern Ionian Sea directly across from Albania and Epirus it is a quintessential Mediterranean isle. Its history spans deep prehistory, the Corinthian colony, the Roman civil war, Dark Age and Medieval venturers, the Venetians, Ottoman sieges, a British protectorate and bombing by Mussolini. Crammed into its Unesco world heritage city is a kaleidoscope of riches. Yet you’d never know it.

Corfu unlike the southern Ionian Islands has sold its soul to tourism. It deals with it tolerably well, but the spirit of place which enchanted Gerald and Lawrence Durrell is limited to oases.

The twin towers of Corfu's Old Fortress

The Victorian photographer, J.D. Shakespear, believed every European country had contributed stones to Corfu. As for the extraordinary story of this place, it is fragmented and dispersed in its open and closed museums, and its various castles, palaces and sites. A sense of the narrative from the Corinthian city at Palaipolis (closed; limited finds on display at Mon Repos) to the evolution of the Ionian Islands capital does not exist. Nowhere does Corfu assert its great Mediterranean prowess. The contrast, for instance, with Malta could not be greater.

Greek friends lament – it’s the austerity. But it isn’t. It’s a myopic and bureaucratic view of the island’s culture.

Tilting at windmills? Well, Corfu does boast one cultural gem managed to the highest contemporary standards: the Asian Art Museum in the Palace of St. Michael and St. George (1819-23) (Palaia Anaktora). Once the seat of Islands’s Senate, its parliament and the British commissioners, this museum shows what can be done and also highlights what isn’t.

Palace of St. Michael & St. George

Inside this expertly restored Regency building you feel you are in a (UK) National Trust property. It benefits from being proudly staffed: at the ticket office they welcome you. The exhibits based on the collection of the Greek ambassador, George Manos, are exquisitely presented and encased. Add to this modern museology for shows on the Silk Road and Chinese porcelain and you could be in New York or some such metropolitan gallery.

Silk Road Turkmen costume

This museum pointedly is a show-case for how cultural exhibitions should be treated in a modern tourist centre. Why I ask myself, as I leave it in the late afternoon (when all other museums are closed) has the EU not gone granular with the Greek government (over its loans) and said hold on, why not strategically invest using skills like those behind the Asian Art Museum’s museology? Why, too, I ask myself, doesn’t Unesco weigh in and mention that the city’s celebrated archaeology museum has been closed for countless years? Cultural checks and balances are more than icing on a cake, as attested by the tourists streaming up the old fortress in the scorching afternoon sunshine.

George Manos

The Asian Art Museum is an international treasure-house, but, really, a museum on Corfu and its Mediterranean story – and open – would be welcome too.

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