Ingenious and multitalented, architect-museologist Erato Koutsoudaki-Gerolympou works fastidiously on each new project, taking deep dives into the core of the subject and designing interactive exhibitions that stir and awaken the public.
Born and bred Athenian, though her family hails from two places far apart – Sfakia in Crete and Pogoni, Epirus, Erato studied architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and museology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh). “I have a feeling that everything in my career so far has contributed to me getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do, even before I could describe it: putting together ephemeral environments that tell stories in a structured way,” she confides when asked what she wanted to grow up to be as a little girl.
How did she make the leap from architecture to museology? “I had to get a master’s degree, like everyone,” she explains, revealing the mentor who was instrumental to her later choice. “I will always be thankful to my architecture professor, George Chaidopoulos, who advised me not to rush. He said I should give myself a few years in the field, see my first project through. Then, I should stand across from it and evaluate which parts of the journey worked for me and which didn’t. So I realized that building architecture didn’t suit me – and maybe I didn’t suit it. With museology, on the other hand, it was meant to be…” she exclaims.
Erato’s first museum was the Athanasios Diakos Museum of History, in the village of the same name in the mountains of Fokis, which she started before she graduated from Aristotle University. She then moved on to archeological museums and then industrial heritage – an encounter that proved pivotal.
First came the Industrial Museum of Ermoupolis, seeking to reframe the significant history of the island of Syros. Along with it came the Lead Shot Factory Experiential Museum inside the small workshop of Anairousis, which is the sole surviving representative of its type anywhere in Europe. That brought the Industrial Gas Museum in Gazi. She recalls: “It was my first project in Athens. Large scale and featuring a big team, it was particularly challenging for the first time. However, thanks to a lot of passion and hard teamwork, I look at it today, ten years later, and say, ‘It’s holding up well!’”
Around 2013, two key projects land on her desk. First was the Maria Callas Museum for the Municipality of Athens which, following several adventures, is finally opening its doors to the public in the fall of 2023. There was also the permanent exhibition in the Visitors Center of Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. The big challenge there was interaction and versatility, with the high number of visitors at the exhibition constituting a big victory. “The components of this project are very closely aligned with the Maria Callas Permanent Exhibition we launched in the Municipal Market of Kypseli one decade later.”
Entirely out of the blue, Elefsina came into her life in 2016, when she was hired to curate an exhibition on the industrial heritage of a city she had never visited. Erato is forced to try her hand at setting up an exhibition rather than designing museums – and this line of work steals her heart. “The exhibition People and Factories left an unexpectedly strong mark on the local community and its deep love for a mysterious place, but I had no idea what was around the corner, a few years later… However, this was the springboard for a milestone exhibition for the 160 years of Greek industry, titled 160 Years MADE IN GREECE, at Technopolis, one year later. Spread over 1,500m2, the material was sourced from all the chief industrial sites of the country, from key historical archives, and from private collections. The timeline room was much discussed and still makes me proud with its design.” She explains
that these days, she is leading a capable team taking on the Mineralogical Museum of Lavrion, another milestone for those who appreciate the country’s industrial heritage.
Another theme in her work is centered around monographs of sacred cultural figures from music and theater: First, Skalkottas. Then, Theodorakis, the recent Medea in Epidaurus, and now Callas, who finally gets a home in the first museum in the world that’s solely dedicated to her. Working on these monographs, she learned the invaluable way to identify the core of each of these personalities – that elusive element that made them stand out. “Almost always, it is fervently hard work, paired with talent,” she says.
Also worth mentioning is another key exhibition, that for the 90 Years of the Marathon Dam, featuring the spectacular historical archive of EYDAP, the Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company – whose great public appeal was sadly cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Erato Koutsoudaki recalls, “I’ll never forget how anxious and how happy the introduction of running water made me – we had a waterfall inside the exhibition!”
From 2019 to 2020, she attended a stage design workshop at the National Theater of Greece, delivered by Eva Manidaki, which Erato calls “revealingly renewing.” She also speaks highly of Michail Marmarinos, whom she met over the pandemic to work on 2023 Elevsis European Capital of Culture, where he serves as General Artistic Director. For the Elefsina-based projects, she says, “The narrative historical installation titled Elefsina & Revolution will always have a special place in my heart. But it was Raw Museum that gave us the opportunity to map a spectacular, rich journey into the story of a city – and the joy of being hosted in the popular Benaki Museum for the second time, after the Papadopoulos 100 exhibition. In the latter, she explored the history of the notable Papadopoulos family on the occasion of the company’s centennial. “Once again, it was hard work that helped them stand out. It is a common element that always draws my attention. And it was an archive that spans all of 20 th century Greece – just like the Mikis Theodorakis exhibition.”
At this point, I ask Erato to describe how she works; how she starts curating something new, the steps she takes, the obstacles, overcoming them. “You never have as much time as you need. It’s often (much) less but on occasion it’s much more, which is equally problematic. You adapt. I begin by researching. I dive into the subject, looking for its core – its exemplary interest. Then, composing the different parts is a personal process based upon an organized system of action and thought I set up as a student and continue to develop over 20 years of work, collaborating with distinguished colleagues.”
If I have to choose one challenge to discuss – I no longer see these as difficulties – it’s the quick decisions you have to make on the spot when setting up an exhibition, which always has twists and turns. Any challenges usually come from having on the team someone not aligned with the spirit of the project; and the joys stem from the opposite: having all stakeholders, associates, staff, and contractors welcome and amplify your thoughts to something larger than the original concept.”
So, what makes a museological project, and by extension, an exhibition, successful in her opinion? “Going in feeling indifferent and leaving if not overwhelmed – which happened to me at the old Holocaust exhibition in London’s Imperial War Museum – at least reflective, awakened, curious to know more. After all, in a general sense, museology practices political action. It takes a stand on things, defines public opinion. This is very fascinating but also comes with great responsibility.”
From her curations and collaborations to date, Erato Koutsoudaki chooses to discuss Elefsina & Revolution, which contained her
soundscape, “Karaiskakit!,” as well as her collaboration with Michail Marmarinos. As she notes, “Freed from the conventions of exhibitions and guided by a brilliant mind, Marimarinos, I tried my hands at tools from the realms of fine art and theater – which I appreciated and loved, and have since sought to incorporate into my work.”
Besides being an accomplished architect and museologist, Erato Koutsoudaki-Gerolympou has also written a children’s book, Chloe in Elefsina. “My involvement in writing came about by chance and, because it’s detached from professional constraints, is another thing I let guide me,” she says and reveals that in a few months, Chloe will pay a visit to the National Garden… “And if we are both lucky and children love it, we will go elsewhere too!”
Is there a dream project for her? What does she aspire to achieve? “There is no such thing. What will come, is welcome to come. I aspire to always feel like I have a lot ahead of me – a lot to learn, a lot to conquer! And for the future to always find us healthy and loved, together with my family, my husband, and our two children, whom I adore and thank for their patience with me and the museums.”