Skip to main content

Museums in Cyprus

Yianis Toumazis

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #13 – Spring 2010

A. For a Cypriot museographical map

Cyprus, this small island at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, has always been between the East and the West, the last stopping point of the Crusaders before reaching the Holy Land. Third in size after Sicily and Sardinia, it has attracted the interest of many different people throughout history. If there is something that characterises its history and civilisation, it is precisely the fact that it was an important crossroads. It was a gate from the East and to the West, a stopping point in the movement of ideas, civilisations, goods and people. A strategic point that the great powers in history always aspired to.

The geographical location of Cyprus at the gates of Levant has made and continues to make it an ideal “intercultural” oasis for the surrounding area. Although Cyprus has been a divided country since 1974, its European reality (Cyprus has been a full member of the European Union since 2004 and of the Eurozone since 2008) can help Cyprus become a cultural hub in the area; a hub filled with museums and institutional models that will work towards a common cultural policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

The matter of the lack of specialised museums with an appropriate infrastructure on the island is more serious than ever and the official and unofficial discussions on the need to create them date back to the establishment of the Cypriot Republic fifty years ago.

One would expect that due to its centuries-old cultural heritage and its plethora of significant archaeological sites, Cyprus would be a “living museum”, a magnet to visitors from all over the world, or even a country with a major museum infrastructure able to host its ancient and modern treasures and heirlooms, its history and its legacy, in a suitable museological environment.

Unfortunately the situation regarding the “museographical” map of Cyprus is not exactly an ideal one. The various painful events in its recent history, and particularly the Turkish invasion in 1974 which led to the island’s division, have undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the country was unable to evolve and develop smoothly, which naturally affected the cultural infrastructure. Also, as a result of this division, significant cultural treasures located in the occupied northern part of Cyprus are either destroyed, or are smuggled abroad, where they are sold illegally. The main target is the island’s Byzantine heritage. Many particularly significant Byzantine churches are devastated, looted and destroyed.

In addition, unregulated construction during the last decades of the 20th century, particularly in tourist resorts, has deteriorated the special character of many areas. In the agonising efforts for development, cultural infrastructure has not been a priority for anyone.

If anybody attempts to map the Cypriot museum landscape, they will draw some very interesting conclusions. First of all, one would say that there is a plethora of specialised and non-specialised museums. But are these really and suitably adequate for a small country of the European Union which claims its culture as its main “weapon” on the international field?

In an initial attempt to categorise the museums of Cyprus, they would fit into two basic categories: a) the state museums, and b) the museums under the control of local authority, private museums, or partnerships between the two.

State museums mainly focus on archaeological exhibits, ranging from the most important in Nicosia to a series of regional archaeological museums.
The museum of Nicosia is named the Cyprus Museum and is governed by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, which in turn is governed by the Ministry of Communications and Works of the Republic of Cyprus.

The building which currently houses the Cyprus Museum dates back to British rule. Like many countries in the Middle East, Cyprus was a part of the British Empire from 1878 to 1960.
The British Administration opened the first Cyprus Museum on 16 May 1891 in a large house on Victoria Street in Nicosia[1]. All the antiquities that had previously been kept in the various government offices were gathered there.

Soon, however, due to the lack of resources and care, the first museum became almost derelict[2].

Work on the construction of a new building to house the Cyprus Museum began in 1907. By 15 May 1909, the main entrance and the two front rooms had been completed. The designs were drawn up by the Greek architect Nikolaos Balanos, a senior architect of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, who was at that time responsible for the reconstruction of the Acropolis[3].

It is that same building, along with the additions and interventions made over time, which now houses the Cyprus Museum 100 years later.

The need for the creation of a modern archaeological museum in the Cypriot capital is something more than imperative as the Cyprus Museum receives more visitors than any other museum in Cyprus.
It is well known that the biggest source of income for Cyprus is tourism, and the existence of a museum that fulfils all the current museological requirements is now a sine qua non.
It is certain that the creation of a modern museum in the centre of the capital (on a site that has already been found)would radically change the image and character of the capital’s urban landscape.

The other museums in Cyprus belong either to municipalities and communities, to the Church of Cyprus or to private institutions. There are a great number of private museums that are concerned with ethnography, folk art, marine life, natural history, coinage and many other themes.

If we had to single out some of them for their quality, but also because they fulfil current requirements for a museum, although this is of course not an exhaustive list of notable museums in Cyprus, these would include: The Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia, the ‘THALASSA’ Municipal Museum of the Sea in Ayia Napa, the Museum of the History of Cypriot Coinage of the Bank of Cyprus, and the Museum of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos in the Troodos Mountains.

The Leventis Museum, which presents the history of Nicosia and is housed in two restored manor houses in the old town, was awarded the European Museum of the Year Award in 1991. It is one of the first museums in Cyprus to introduce modern exhibition and information methods, educational programmes for children and an organised modern gift shop.

The ‘THALASSA’ Municipal Museum of the Sea in Ayia Napa, which is run by the Pierides Foundation, is perhaps the only museum in Cyprus to be housed in an impressive building which was built following an architectural competition.
The building was designed specifically to house the replica of the ancient ship Kyrenia II by the architects Zenon and Christina Sierepeklis. The writer of this text is responsible for the museological design. The ‘THALASSA’ museum was also honoured in the European Museum of the Year Award contest in 2007. Its main feature is that it was created in a replete and depressed tourist area, with the purpose of upgrading the tourist product.

The Museum of the History of Cypriot Coinage of the Bank
of Cyprus, which belongs to the largest bank on the island, has developed significant educational activities on the history of Cypriot coinage.

As concerns the Museum of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos, one of the most important Orthodox monasteries in Cyprus, it has succeeded in exhibiting its significant treasures by creating a ‘magnificent’ museum environment.


B. The presence of art in the absence of a museum.
The experience of the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre

Modern and contemporary art is also ranked low among the priorities for the creation of new museums. The State Gallery, which is housed in a neo-classical building in the capital is not adequate to exhibit the contemporary visual arts potential of the island.

Despite all this, the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre, associated with the Pierides Foundation, also known as Power- House, was established in 1994 in the old power house at the heart of the old town and close to the Green Line, as a result of collaboration with the Pierides Foundation. This is a partnership between a private cultural institution, the Pierides Foundation (one of the oldest in Cyprus), and the municipality of the capital.

The members of the Municipal Council entertained many ideas on the use of the abandoned industrial building dating back to the beginning of the century (which belongs to the Electricity Authority and is leased for a symbolic fee). These ideas included a hospital for the women in the area, as the building is located in the middle of the old red light district, or a basketball court or other sports facilities, or even a Community Centre.

Finally, the conversion of the building into the Arts Centre triumphed. This sensitive conversion from an industrial to a cultural building (as mentioned in the award committee’s recitals) was awarded a prize by Europa Nostra in 1994.

Since its opening, the Centre has aspired to create communication channels with similar institutions abroad, to promote local creativity, to organise major thematic exhibitions in collaboration with important museums abroad, to organise workshops, lectures, theoretical presentations and educational programmes for children.

The Centre’s operation in a difficult and depraved district in the old town has greatly contributed to the gradual change in the character of the area. Now other exhibition venues, restaurants and cultural centres have opened around the PowerHouse. With the revival programme of the old town and the construction of the new Town Hall, the area will once again become the centre of the old Nicosia, and a lively and dynamic urban quarter.

Over years gone by, with more than sixty major exhibitions, the Centre has in one way or another attempted to connect people who love art, and mainly children, with ideas, principles and significant works.
As Marcel Duchamp said, the artist is on one side of artistic creativity, and the spectator is on the other[4].
It is the synergy of the two that creates a work of art and preserves it for posterity.

Within the context of this creative process, the Old Powerhouse has been delighted to exhibit the works of such major artists as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Antoni Tapies, as well as Damien Hirst, Kiki Smith and Gilbert & George. It has also exhibited works by Tiziano, Tintoretto, Veronese, Rubens and Nicolas Poussin, or even John Galliano, Viktor & Rolf or Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Amongst Greek artists, the Old Powerhouse has presented works by Tsarouchis, Moralis, Parthenis, Gikas, Fasianos and Mitaras. Including other Cypriot artists, the works of Christophoros Savvas, Glyn Hughes, Aggelos Makridis, Georgos Sfikas, Theodoulos, Nikos Kourousis, Maria Loizidou, Helene Black, Glafkos Koumidis have been exhibited at the same venue, almost all the representatives of our dynamic new generation of artists.
This list will do injustice to some. Tens, or probably hundreds, of artists have exhibited their works at the Arts Centre.
Over the years, the Centre has tried to experience, along with its spectators, real moments of the creative process and to start trying to map the reality of Cypriot visual arts, and of Cypriot creativity. The YK:EMX programme (Under Construction: Alternative Museum Spaces), the Cypriot Visual Arts Archive that is being created (together with the Chamber of Fine Arts) for all Cypriot cultural producers, the Open Call and the Project Room aimed at local artists, all aspire to discourse and dialogue with the reality of today in an area which is everything but privileged. In the last few years, the Centre has turned towards the new generation of hopeful new spectators and creators.

Although the Centre does not have the purchasing policy of a state museum, the curatorship and design of the exhibitions it has organised as well as its parallel activities, the only Library of the History of Art in Cyprus and the Children’s Educational Centre with the first of its kind engraving workshop for children and the Cinematography Workshop which is being created, have all worked in accordance with museum specifications in a way of substituting the major lacks of a state museum. The notable restaurant in the Centre’s courtyard, as well as the gift shop with art objects and replicas, also complete the “museum” specifications of the venue.
Indeed, although the centre specialises in Contemporary Art, precisely because of the absence of another museum it has decided to widen its scope of interest in order to present major historical exhibitions, which could otherwise not be organised. As far as this is possible, of course, because in Cyprus, culture is quite low on the list of priorities of government and private bodies.
Despite the tremendous support from the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Local Authorities, as well as from private sponsors, the procurement of resources for the survival and development of cultural foundations is now very difficult.


What is certain is that in order for Cyprus to keep abreast of contemporary successes in the field of museology and museography, it will have to acquire the appropriate infrastructure soon, not only in order to maintain and promote its culture, but to generate modern foundations of dynamic creativity.

In 2009, the Cypriot Parliament passed the first law on the recognition of private and municipal museums, thus for the first time setting principles and criteria to be fulfilled by these museums in order to be able to receive state subsidy.
This may be the opportunity for the future development of museums in Cyprus to be given an organised basis, and for it to be the result of a proper strategic plan.

It is true that Cypriots have always looked more towards the West than the East, perhaps due to Cyprus’ origins, conditions and invaders, as also happens to a lesser or larger extent, I imagine, in other countries in the area that experienced colonialism.

On the other hand, the replete metropolises of the West are looking to the East in search of new “pure” sources of creativity.
Museums, curators, theorists and gallerists uncover, “document” and “file” events in the East with the zeal of a Victorian anthropologist.

This might be the time for Levantine countries and beyond to realise the power of such a collaboration. It would not be at all unreasonable or unprecedented as this interaction has its roots in the faraway past. This is demonstrated by the thousands of discoveries spread around all four corners of our geographical area.

A cultural synergy that could become a catalyst for the future development and collaboration in the area.

Within this scope, Cyprus could once again become a crossroads for the movement of ideas and people. A field for creativity, collaboration and real culture.

[1] Merrillees, Robert S., The First Cyprus Museum in Victoria Street, Nicosia, Nicosia, Moufflon Publications Ltd, 2005, p. 6

[2] Pilides Despina, George Jeffery:His Diaries And The Ancient Monuments Of Cyprus, Nicosia, Department of Antiquities, 2009, p. 90

[3] Ibid., pp.67-68

[4] Duchamp Marcel, Le Processus créatif, Paris, L’Échoppe, 1987.