With the Ministry of Culture in Greece announcing 2020 as the Year of Melina Mercouri it was only natural for ESTIA to focus on the contribution of the iconic actor, politician and activist for its celebrations on International Women’s Day in February. And ESTIA, the Hellenic Women’s Cultural Association,called on Professor Maria Koundoura, recently the Head of the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, to be the guest speaker.

Prof Koundoura said that the talk on Mercouri was the perfect theme for ESTIA’s International Women’s Day event.

“Melina was an incredible voice and the Mercouri Foundation that her husband, Jules Dassin, founded after her death has continued her work and kept that voice strong.”

The Acropolis Museum, which was built after her death, was inspired by her push for the return of the Parthenon Marbles that have been residing in the British Museum since the mid-19th Century. The museum, which was built in part with money and international awareness raised by the Foundation, was not without its controversy when it first opened.

“The Acropolis Museum is very beautiful. It was controversial because people wanted it to be a neo-classical building, a new version of the old museum, but what I like about it is that it does not hide its modernity. It is a glass box, really, but what it does do is feature the Parthenon prominently – you see it from everywhere in the building – and allows it (the Parthenon) to speak for itself.”

She said that the museum had recently opened to the public, the excavations beneath the walkway to its entrance that are covered by plexiglass, allowing people to view the places where the artisans working on the Acropolis actually lived.

Professor Maria Koundouri, will be the guest speaker at ESTIA’s International Women’s Day function at the Greek Community Centre on Lonsdale Street in Melbourne on Sunday, 23 February. Photo: Supplied

Apart from the Acropolis Marbles, Ms Mercouri’s other contributions included her initiative to bring all archaeological sites in the country under a unified archaeological body. As Minister of Culture she also was the leading voice for the creation of the European Capital of Culture initiative and the European Commission prize derived from it was named in her honour.

Her cultural contributions were also recognised internationally through the UNESCO Melina Mercouri International Prize for Cultural Landscapes.

One of her major contributions to Greek life was to set up theatres outside the main centres of Athens and Thessaloniki through the DIPETHE initiative which brought the theatre to the provincial cities of Greece.

Because the talk was to be delivered on International Women’s Day, Prof Koundoura said she would set Ms Mercouri in a historical context and also talked about the late-19th Century to 20th Century Greek women’s movement;

“It is a history in which Melina belongs,” said Prof Koundoura.

“Modern Greek women’s voices were FIRST represented in the first women’s newspaper, Efimeritha to Kirion (The Ladies’ Newspaper) which was founded in 1897 by Kalliroi Siganou Parren. There is a history of strong women’s voices and Melina is a continuation of that history.”

ESTIA was part of Prof Koundoura’s history as her parents often went to its events.

Her family first came to Australia in the 1970s, then returned to Greece for five years. They returned to Australia for five years when Prof Koundoura who had transferred to the University of Melbourne English department from Aristotle University. She finished her undergraduate degree and did her Master’s in English Literature.

She then went to Stanford University in the United states for her doctorate.

“ESTIA has been doing wonderful work for many years. The organisation has created a space for dialogue for women of different backgrounds and from different parts of Greece – they also created a common forum here in Australia for everyone to meet.

“My mother and father would go to events at ESTIA and I want to honour that tradition so when I was I was invited, to speak I immediately agreed. I want to continue in the tradition that they started,” she said.

The author of two books (The Greek Idea: The Formation of National and Transnational Identities and Transnational Culture; Transnational Identity: The Politics and Ethics of Global Culture Exchange), she has also written many articles and essays, has translated poetry and her own work has been translated in many languages.

She is also the editor of Modern Greek Studies which is published by John Hopkins University Press in the US.

Professor Koundoura is currently on a year-long sabbatical from Emerson College and is working on her next book Desire Lines: Metaphors of the Global City.

A view of the entrance to the Acropolis Museum. The Mercouri Foundation helped raise funds and international awareness for the building. Photo: theusmanmali/WikiCommons