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The New Acropolis Museum

Acropolis museumThe construction of the amazing new Acropolis Museum has not been straightforward but it was definitely worth the wait. Ten times larger in size than the original museum it provides a safe and fabulous home for the masterpieces of the Acropolis and ensures that they are given the prominence that they deserve.
The first museum, built in the shadow of the Parthenon, was constructed at the end of the C19th. However, as work was being carried out a large cache of ancient sculptures, buried in large pits on the rock meant that it was already too small by the time it was finished in 1886. These sculptures, which had been buried by the ancient Athenians after the destruction of Athens during the Persian Wars in 480BC were stored away, never to see the light of day until, in 1964, they were put on display in a new annex built onto the existing museum. However, the antiquities of the Acropolis were never able to be seen in their entirety despite the additions built.
Consequently, the idea to construct a new Acropolis Museum was first considered more than thirty years ago, in 1976, when the Greek government of the day announced an architectural competition to select a design for a new museum. Unfortunately, this competition and the subsequent one in 1979 failed to find a solution. A third competition in 1989, open to international firms this time, succeeded in finding a winner. However, after only a short time into the project as excavations for the museum’s foundations were being dug, important ancient archaeological finds were discovered and construction was halted. These finds showed an important part of the ancient city of Athens and features many architectural phases and thousands of artefacts that provide a valuable insight into everyday activities and life-style of those ancient citizens who lived under the towering form of the Acropolis.

The government, eager to find a design solution that could include these new discoveries, held a fourth competition in 2000 which involved the additional constraints of ensuring that any new design had to somehow stand above the remains so as not to damage them. The New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi, working alongside Greek architect Michael Photiades, won this last competition for their design which includes more than one hundred concrete pilotis (stilts) to raise the building above the ruins of the ancient city below.
The resulting building, constructed from concrete and glass, is a masterpiece and strikes a dramatic chord in the historical area of Makriyianni, southeast of the Acropolis. Tschumi’s three storey building is sited just 300m from the Parthenon and next to the Acropolis metros station. Visitors to the Acropolis Museum can view the excavation of the ancient city through the openings and glass floors at the ground level of the Museum. It is expected that a special exhibition area, where the archaeological excavation site can be seen more easily, will be finished by 2010.

The ground floor of the structure, leads to the first gallery of the museum, The Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis. It is a vast lobby and houses finds from the slopes of the Acropolis and, with its reinforced glass floor, gives views to the remains of the ancient city underneath. Street plans, the foundations of houses and beautiful mosaics can all be seen, in situ. The inclined floor of this gallery alludes to the ascent to the Acropolis itself. This inclined floor is a dramatic design point as, in antiquity, the slopes of the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis constituted the transition zone between the city and its most famous sanctuary. It ascends until it reaches the main gallery on the next level. Exhibits in The Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis are all finds that came from the sanctuaries that existed on the slopes of the Acropolis. Also, too, you can see everyday objects used by Athenians from many historic periods.

The first floor is home to Archaic Gallery. The Archaic period is from the 7th BC through to the end of the Persian Wars (480-79 BC). During this time city-states developed and political culture evolved from aristocracy to tyranny and, finally, democracy. The Archaic period is also characterised by outstanding achievements in the economy, art and intellectual life. The contrast from the ground floor lobby to the Archaic Gallery is spectacular. The space suddenly opens up and the sunlight flooding into this gallery completely changes the atmosphere of the museum. Its spiritual mood gives the impression of standing in a church where the graceful lines of the columns retreat upwards and the focus is shifted to the wonderful statues which stand bathed in sunlight. This immense area is filled with natural light streaming through the gallery’s wall of glass and 50 glass skylights. The resulting feelings of peace and serenity which emanates from this impressive space give ideal conditions to observe the freestanding sculptures. Visitors can walk around the sculptures and marvel at the remaining coloured pigments that still cling to many of the statues.

Exhibits include the Porch of the Caryatids (the Erechtheion) which overlook the Gallery of the Acropolis Slopes, the Propylaia, the Korai, ( young female statues), the Hippeis ( horse riders), the Nike Temple and the history and artefacts from C5th BC to C5th AD.

The second floor of the Museum is a popular meeting place. There is a gift and book shop and a well designed restaurant with balconies and terraces which give views directly across to the Acropolis. The luminous black Volos marble floor and, again, a wall entirely of glass which subtly filters the light all combine to make this floor a very graceful space.

The rasion d’etre of the museum, however, is its third floor. Here you will find the Parthenon Gallery. Constructed at an angle of 23 degrees to the main building it exactly mirrors the position of the Parthenon temple on the rock of the Acropolis. At the Parthenon Information Centre on this floor there is an extremely informative video presentation about the Parthenon and its sculptural decoration. Also exhibited here are ancient marble inscriptions which depict detailed records of the cost of construction on the Parthenon and the statue of Athena Parthenos.

The whole gallery is arranged around a rectangular cement core which has the exact dimensions as the cella (the frieze which ran around the walls of the original building on the Acropolis). Each metope is mounted between graceful columns of stainless steel and the pediments are positioned at the eastern and western ends. The Parthenon Gallery was designed to display the frieze as originally intended by Pheidias (490-430BC) who was an Athenian sculptor and the artistic director of the construction of the Parthenon. The frieze is 160 metres long and portrays the Panathenaic procession that was in honour of the Goddess Athena.

Thus, visitors can enjoy, for the first time, the entire sculpted decoration of the Parthenon as it was on the ancient building, even if this is achieved through combining original sculptures, which have been removed from the Parthenon in order to protect them, and with cast copies of those currently held in the British Museum and the Louvre. The British Museum copies are easily identified as they are several shades lighter than the originals. Controversially, during the 1930s, The British Museum scoured them clean with wire brushes whereas the patina on the Athens pieces, after almost 2,500 years of being exposed to the elements, is not unified and even though conservationists have cleaned them using infra red and ultra violet rays, the difference is very apparent.

Any visit to Athens today must incorporate a visit to this outstanding museum which is a credit to the Greek government, the architects and designers and teams of restorers, archaeologists and engineers who worked so carefully to give us this cultural wonder. At a cost of 130 million euros and decades of effort it was money and time well invested.

The museum is located at 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street , Athens and is open every day except Mondays from 8.00 a.m. to 8.00 p.m. Admission price is 1 euro. Tickets can be purchased on-line from the Museum’s website. www.theacropolismuseum.gr

There is a cloakroom on the ground floor of the Museum and all bags, etc. must be left here. Security is very thorough and on arrival visitors go through an X-ray luggage control system. All the areas of the museum are accessible for wheelchair users and the Museum has three wheelchairs available at no cost. There is also parking space for two cars for disabled visitors. Note, however, that there is no parking for able-bodied visitors. In line with most museums, photographing the exhibits is not allowed. There is a cafeteria and shop on the ground floor which overlooks the archaeological excavation and a restaurant and a further gift shop on the second floor.

The best way to get to the museum is by metro, Line 2 is getting off at Acropolis Station.

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Athens Greece Guide 2003-2007

Athens guide copyright 2008