Anna Apostolaki: A Forgotten Pioneer of Women’s Emancipation in Greece

Apostolaki_Invitation_SmallBEST WISHES FOR 2016 – ΠΟΛΛΕΣ ΕΥΧΕΣ ΓΙΑ ΤΟ 2016


Posted by Vivian Florou

Vivian Florou here contributes to From the Archivist’s Notebook an essay about Anna Apostolaki, one of the first women to graduate from the University of Athens and in 1926 the first curator of the newly established Museum of Decorative Arts.  Her essay not only sheds light on forgotten aspects of Apostolaki’s life and work but also places this remarkable woman in the cultural milieu of the early decades of the 20th century and at the center of the feminist movement in Greece. Vivian, who studied archaeology and cultural heritage management, co-edited with Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Jack L. Davis, a collection of essays titled Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives (Atlanta 2015).

On November 24, 2015, I participated in a workshop at the Benaki Museum titled “A Gift for Anna Apostolaki in Gratitude: Her Life, Work, and Contributions.” My involvement in that event, organized by the Lyceum Club of Greek Women, encouraged me to contribute this short essay to “From the Archivist’s Notebook.” Anna Apostolaki (1881-1958) was an archaeologist and folklorist, the first director of the National Museum of Decorative Arts (now the Museum of Greek Folk Art). As Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Jack Davis taught me, with the application of loving care archives will bloom. Thus the processing of the dozens of disorganized manuscripts in Apostolaki’s personal archives in the Benaki Museum have contributed many pieces to the mosaic that constituted the character of this woman, whom most have forgotten.

The invitation to the conference in honor of Anna Apostolaki, November 24, 2015

The invitation to the conference in honor of Anna Apostolaki, November 24, 2015

Anna Apostolaki was born in Margarites (near Rethymnon) in 1881. Storm clouds from 19th century Cretan revolutions forced her family to flee first to Piraeus, then to Athens. The difficulties of refugee life and the loss of her father probably contributed to her decision to enroll in the School of the Society for the Promotion of Education and Learning (Αρσάκειο). At the end of the 19th century, she graduated from there as a teacher.

Archaeologist and famous numismatist Ioannis Svoronos (1863-1922)

Archaeologist and famous numismatist Ioannis Svoronos (1863-1922)

In those years acquiring a teacher’s diploma was almost the only possibility that most women had to earn a living and their only hope of escaping life as a housewife. Apostolaki worked as a tutor for some twenty-five years, but after 1903 she nourished her intellect by enrolling in the Philosophical School of the University of Athens. While a student she worked at the Numismatic Museum as an assistant to Ioannis Svoronos, director of the museum; he was first to instill in her a passion for scientific investigation. It was probably her association with Svoronos that guaranteed that she in 1906 was elected the first woman member of the Archaeological Society at Athens, more than sixty years after the foundation of that institution in 1837.

Apostolaki finished her studies in 1909, one of the first ten female graduates of the University of Athens and the first from Crete. Newspaper headlines commented on her graduation:

“Women are victorious. The Greek world has a new woman doctor as of yesterday…”

“Αι γυναίκες νικούν. Μια νέα δοκτρέσσα έχει από της χθες ο γυναικείος κόσμος της Ελλάδος…”

The need for such a panegyric implicitly acknowledges the difficulties that Apostolaki had faced in navigating an educational system dominated by men. She was a typical emancipated woman of her time, working to earn a livelihood while studying. Emancipation “through education and work” (δια της εκπαιδεύσεως και της εργασίας) would, in fact, be embedded in the charter of the Lyceum Club of Greek Women, founded in 1911 by journalist and writer, as well as the founder of the feminist movement in Greece, Kalliroi Parren (1861-1940). (See also


Kalliroi Siganou Paren

In the first half of the 20th century, the Lyceum Club would attract educated working women by beginning, soon after its incorporation, to organize a broad program of lectures for female audiences and for the general public. Apostolaki, a founding member of the Lyceum Club, shared in that initiative, presenting archaeological lectures about the Palace of Minos at Knossos and other subjects. Let’s imagine this tiny woman speaking one rainy 1911 evening about Knossos in the huge lecture hall of the Archaeological Society … “My dear Anna,” a friend wrote to her a few days later, “Monday I was ready to come to hear you, but the storm stopped me. I sent word of it to French colleagues; they were at your talk.”  It was her first presentation before members of her own sex, in a scientific world that was male dominated, as was public life more generally. This introduction to the world at large marked Apostolaki’s first foray into a field that henceforth would constitute the main focus of her research — folk culture. In describing the motifs of Minoan vases, she mentioned that these could be useful models for the modern Greek woman who

“agonizes to produce something purely Greek, when foreigners today only admire ancient marbles … whereas beautiful embroideries and lace with ancient patterns could draw their attention”

This turn toward popular culture hints at the long road that Apostolaki’s generation had traversed in the first years of the 20th century. Greek society of her day would try to find new connections between folk traditions and ancient customs. In the unstable nationalistic environment of the end of the 19th century, the new science of folklore would seek to bind antiquity to popular culture, as its natural descendant. Apostolaki understood the importance of this strategy, inasmuch as she in 1909 had become the first woman member of the Greek Folklore Society (founded by the folklorist Nikolaos Politis).

The Museum of Greek Handicrafts was founded in this milieu in 1918, its premise also being the unbroken continuity of Greek culture. Not only Greeks subscribed to this notion. The British archaeologist Alan J. B. Wace, long interested in traditional Greek crafts, was a member of the governing council of the museum. His colleagues at the Victoria and Albert Museum, however, struggled to understand the goals of the museum:

“… what precisely is your purpose; is it to create an institution which shall serve as a historical record of what the Greeks were seeing and doing in the way of Art within those limits of time? Has it, as an intention, that any of these should be revived or continued among the people of today? Or, is there a wider aim, namely that of giving a general impulse to the Industrial Arts in Greece?”

All of these goals would, in fact, be crystallized in the definitive form that this institution would take in 1923 when it became the National Museum of Decorative Arts — scarcely a year after the disaster of 1922 –the decisive rupture of Asia Minor Hellenism from the cradle where it had been born and bred, and its inscription within the body of Hellas. The poet Georgios Drosinis, one of the founding members of the Museum, would hire Apostolaki in 1923 as his assistant (she would become the museum’s curator in 1926), noting in his diary a few years later:

“The Museum … I didn’t let it disappear. Worthy female hands were found, the hands of Anna Apostolaki. They cared for the museum as a mother cares for her child; they labored zealously to enrich and preserve its collections; and they continue tirelessly even now, enlightened by experience and scientific method ….”


The Tzistarakis Mosque at Monastiraki Square, 1928. It housed the Museum of Greek Handicrafts in 1918 (renamed to National Museum of Decorative Arts in 1923). Today it serves as annex of the Museum of Greek Folk Art.

Apostolaki’s energetic hands would indeed imprint it with the eternal nature of the feminine. She and her generation envisioned femininity as an ally of sexual emancipation, not contrapuntal to it.

“I cleared the Museum of its moths. The valuable collection of Coptic textiles had suffered the most. I washed these fabrics myself. I put them in order and re-stitched them a little .. Their oversight isn’t a job for a man; it requires the constant attention of a woman.”


The interior of the National Museum of Decorative Arts (Tzistarakis Mosque), 1930s

During the entire period between the two world wars Apostolaki would work under conditions that demanded heroic efforts, cataloging hundreds of acquisitions. She also labored to enrich the collections of the museum by new purchases from art dealers — at a time when folk art had already become a very marketable commodity. She paid just as much attention to the archaeological artifacts that were occasionally acquired in order to illustrate links between folk motives and Greek Antiquity. After 1926, an annual government grant of 20,000 drachmas, intended for the purchase of heirlooms and their retention in Greece, was eliminated, but that did not derail Apostolaki’s work. She dug into her own pocket to purchase exceptional pieces.

Apostolaki’s particular refuge from impediments to her work was a regular retreat to Crete, the place of her birth. There she found emotional security while seeking precious handicrafts for the museum in remote areas. She mainly visited the mountain villages of Mylopotamos with her cousin, Chrysi Angelidaki. The two women traveled together on muleback in these years, calling to mind the first woman archaeologist in Crete, the American Harriet Boyd Hawes. Boyd Hawes likewise was always accompanied by her female colleagues and a muleteer. Chrysi’s son, Yorgos Angelidakis, today 96 years old, remembers the unusual collaboration of his aunt and his mother. He recalls:

“Anna came down to Crete back then. In Anoyia she and my mother hired a man who had a mule and he rented a second one. And my mother rode on the first mule, with Anna on the other. And they hunted for embroideries in Mylopotamos. Now I’m telling you this because back then, people noticed it when two women travelled on muleback to villages in Crete.”

Anna and Chrysi, with Angeliki Hatzimichali, jointly participated in the Delphic Festivals of 1927 and 1930, enriching the Cretan kiosk with folk art that they had found, … reinforcing Angelos Sikelianos and Eva Palmer’s Delphic vision, which imagined that tragedy and folk art both preserved the ancient Greek spirit unadulterated and in equal measure.

Apostolaki also remained faithful throughout her career to the articulation of a national myth in which post-Byzantine Greece played a role equal to that of Antiquity and Byzantium. Thus in 1926, when the Lyceum Club of Greek Women vigorously promoted a three-day Festival in the Panathenaic Stadium, she personally oversaw the production of Minoan costumes used in the celebration. (One cannot avoid comparing the thematic of the 1926 event with the appearance of Minoan themes in the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics of 2004).

Greek women clad in copies of Minoan dress for the celebrations of the Lyceum in 1926. Source: Photographic Archive of Lyceum

Greek women clad in copies of Minoan dress for the celebrations of the Lyceum Club in 1926. Source: Photographic Archive of the Lyceum Club of Greek Women.

In 1932, Apostolaki produced a catalogue of the Coptic textiles she had rescued when she assumed the curatorship of the National Museum of Decorative Arts. Subsequently her scholarship would become nearly synonymous with the world of Coptic weaving. Because she had a solid background in ancient sources and knew the products of Cretan looms firsthand, she thought she could demonstrate continuity in the technology of weaving throughout the ages. She would approach other subjects that interested her in the same way: e.g., the dying of textiles or the history of dress. Her knowledge of the world of Coptic weaving led the director of the Benaki Museum to assign her the publication of the entire Coptic collection of that museum. (On Coptic art, see

Coptic_textilesBut the winds of World War II and the Greek Civil War would throw her own life into a tailspin. Her voice was silenced. Exhibits were packed in wooden boxes and hidden in the National Archaeological Museum. In the December events (“Dekemvriana”) of 1944 her house was plundered and she lost a precious manuscript concerned with Coptic objects in the National Museum of Decorative Arts.

But liberation found her a celebrated researcher and respected personality, not only in Greece. After many entreaties from Thomas Whittemore, director of the Byzantine Institute of Dunbarton Oaks, she contributed in 1950 to an international collection of essays that honored the distinguished Coptologist Walter Ewing Crum (Coptic Studies in Honor of Walter Ewing Crum) — her gift a beautifully written Greek text, titled Κατοπριζομένη επί Υφάσματος (Mirrored in Fabric).

Εικ. 9

The Coptic textile from the Benaki Museum that inspired Apostolaki to write Κατοπριζομένη επί Υφάσματος (Mirrored in Fabric)

In 1953, Anna retired from the Museum to which she had devoted her life. She died five years later, her only children her three books and eleven articles. She had labored so diligently for

“…the Good, which, like a spark amidst ashes, dwells in the history of art and culture, ready to illuminate our world today”

“…η ιδέα του Kαλού, ως σπινθήρ μέσα στη στάκτη, κατοικεί στην Τέχνη και τον Πολιτισμό και ετοιμάζεται να φωτίσει τον τόπο μας”

May that spark also ignite us in the New Year.




I would like to thank the relatives of Anna Apostolaki who honored me with their trust in my “journey” in search of her, Jack L. Davis for translating my essay, and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan for hosting it at From the Archivist’s Notebook.


-Allsebrook, M. 2002. Born to Rebel. The Life of Harriet Boyd Hawes, Oxford.
-Anna Apostolaki Papers, Benaki Museum Photographic Archives
-Avdela, E. (ed.), 2010. To Λύκειον των Ελληνίδων 100 χρόνια, Πολιτιστικό Ίδρυμα Ομίλου Πειραιώς, Athens.
-Avdikos, Ε. 2009. Εισαγωγή στις σπουδές του λαϊκού πολιτισμού, Λαογραφία, Λαϊκοί Πολιτισμοί, Ταυτότητες, Athens.
-Hatzinikolaou, T. 2003. “Η στροφή στο λαϊκό πολιτισμό και τα πρώτα μουσεία,” Εισαγωγή στο Εθνογραφικά 12-13, pp. 11-26.
-Psarra, Α. 1999. “Επίμετρο, Το μυθιστόρημα της χειραφέτησης ή Η ‘συνετή’ ουτοπία της Καλλιρρόης Παρρέν,” in Καλλιρρόη Παρρέν, Η χειραφετημένη, Athens.
-Varika, Ε. 1987. Η εξέγερση των κυριών. Η γένεση μιας φεμινιστικής συνείδησης στην Ελλάδα 1833-1907, Ίδρυμα Έρευνας και Παιδείας της Εμπορικής Τράπεζας της Ελλάδος, Athens.


4 Comments on “Anna Apostolaki: A Forgotten Pioneer of Women’s Emancipation in Greece”

  1. Kostis Kourelis says:

    What a wonderful way to start the New Year, by discovering a forgotten pioneer. Thank you!

  2. Rania Balli says:

    Very interesting, as always Natalia!
    Happy New Year!

  3. […] The Greek experience of the foreign dignitaries was enhanced by a special presentation of the Lyceum Club of Greek Women (Λύκειον των Ελληνίδων). On Thursday April 21, 1926 the Lyceum organized an impromptu reception in their honor, a preview of the annual Festival of the Stadium that was being planned for May 9. The girls of the Lyceum dressed in traditional Greek costume danced folk dances. What attracted the admiration of the guests, however, were the tableaux vivants that recreated a historic panorama of all the periods of Greek civilization from prehistory to the present: “a true Greek Renaissance (Μια αληθινή Ελληνική Αναγέννησις).” (Scrapbook Φ22, p. 12, newspaper clipping, Πολιτεία, 27/4/1926.)  Particular praise was reserved for the reenactment of the frescoes of Knossos by the Greek archaeologist Anna Apostolaki, who put a lot of care into the creation of eleven Minoan costumes, which cost 20,000 drachmas, almost 1/10 of the entire festival’s budget. [3]. Mrs. Hill, the wife of Bert Hodge Hill, was enthused, and the director of Near East Relief referred to the presentation as a most beautiful work of national pride. Rightfully then, did Kallirrhoe Parren (Καλιρρόη Παρρέν) report at the end of 1926 that “Arthur Evans had excavated Knossos, a site that revealed Minoan civilization, but thanks to Anna Apostolaki the Lyceum girls revived Minoan culture and made it accessible to thousands of people.” (About Apostolaki, see also V. Florou, “Anna Apostolaki: A Forgotten Pioneerof Women’s Emancipation in Greece“.) […]

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