The Acropolis Museum in Athens (Greece)
The Acropolis Museum
As it was March 1st 2011 (off season)
You would perhaps expect the Parthenon, towering over the city from the top of its cliff, to be the first thing you notice when you get up from the Athenian metro station called Ακρόπολι, Acropolis. But it probably isn't. I am willing to bet almost anything that your eyes will fall on the (New) Acropolis Museum instead.
The background to why the new museum was built is complicated and cannot be discussed in detail here, but it is safe to say that the old museum had been insufficient for a long time. It is also quite obvious that the Greek authorities wanted to prove to the UK that they could provide a safe environment for the Elgin marbles, thus rendering that argument against repatriation invalid. And the building is certainly safe - it is even said to be able to withstand any earthquake possibly imaginable. Not to mention that it is impressive. Covering almost a whole block, it looks like it is constructed all but exclusively in bare concrete, glass and metal which make it a striking contrast to the neighbourhood. Surprisingly enough I find it quite attractable and not one bit disturbing.
If you haven't already realised that this isn't just any museum by the time you leave the metro you'll soon get another chance as you enter the main gates. After quite a number of steps down you'll find yourself on an outdoors glass floor covering a large area in front of the museum entrance, under which ancient ruins can be seen. This is a theme that will continue throughout the museum and is certainly a double edged blade. Yes, it is very impressive and aesthetically pleasing. Yes, it lets a large amount of light enter the building and gives an already huge building an even larger impression. "But it's not for the faint hearted and if you're a somewhat modest woman, do not wear a skirt if you plan on visiting the second floor, no matter how hot it is. This museum gives peeping Tom a whole new meaning.
The usage of the available space is well worth coming back to. The museum is built around a central core where the lower part forms a massive glass ramp flanked by ancient pottery in several, up to five, rows. Most of the pieces are of very high quality but it is unfortunately impossible to see anything above the first three shelves. Most of the pieces are, thus, turned into purely esthetical objects to be seen but not viewed. At the end of the ramp, behind some "minor" works, you'll see an impressive archaic pediment and I wonder for a moment if this arrangement is meant to represent the road up to the real Acropolis?
The end of the ramp somehow feels like the real entrance to the museum. Interesting is that the intended tour for the visitor leads a couple of meters to the left where the earliest history (compromised to two cases and one model) of the site can be explored, but nobody really notices. The visitors' attention is instead focused on the pediment and the right hand side where the late archaic material is exhibited. Now, most museums would prefer to place their material along the walls, preferably in chronological order, simply to make it easier to view all the objects. Here they try another approach - the pieces are seemingly randomly placed all over the floor, presumably to represent their original positioning at the cliff. I find this both very attractive and very disturbing, although mostly the latter. It is a nice change of pace to walk around amidst the works, but it makes it terribly difficult to keep track of what you have seen and what you have left, mostly because 70% of them are Kore statues, very much alike in appearance. Another problem is that the information signs are placed at the base of each piece. Yes, you will have to bend over to read them.
The path will lead you further into the museum (i.e. around the central core) and here I made my first major mistake - I missed the second floor in my eagerness to see the Caryatids and the sculptures of the Athena Nike temple. The route simply does not feel one bit natural. Slowly, and quite unwilling to leave the beautiful reliefs, I moved back and went up to the 3rd floor just to find that it held nothing but the cafe (which is highly recommended, both for its views and prices). Another floor up I find myself wondering if there is nothing left in the museum and if this is some sort of strange joke, but the movement of the crowd makes it quite clear that I am to go either to the right or the left.
This is where you'll find what the Greeks probably view as the main attraction - the frieze and the metopes. These are arranged around the central core and it suddenly becomes very obvious that this is of the same size and orientation as the Parthenon itself. Very clever. The friezes are easy to view, and I'm not terribly upset that most of them are plaster copies. I am on the other hand disappointed with the metopes. Their placement, perhaps three meters up and two meters in front of the frieze, makes viewing them a painful business for the neck. That they are terribly worn doesn't help and whoever made the signs surely had some sort of time machine (most likely an early drawing) to be able to figure out what most of them depict. I also soon give up on viewing both the frieze and the metopes at the same time and reconcile myself with the thought of walking around the central core twice.
Content that I have actually, mostly, seen the real thing (and quite happy with the magnificent view of the Acropolis) I return to the 2nd floor to once again admire the Nike friezes but after that there's not very much left. A couple of law decrees (what happened to the Hellenistic material, don't tell me that nothing Greek from after 420 BC has been found at the Acropolis) comes next and all of a sudden you'll find yourself in a Roman sub exhibition, consisting of six pieces. Seriously? The Byzantine collection isn't better, I count no more than four objects and end up walking down the ramp reflecting more on how the Greeks present their past than over the absolute world-class artefacts I have just seen.
The quality of the artefacts is, however, worth mentioning again, as I do not want to give you a false impression. This is the place to go if you want a modern, top end, state of the art, museum with finds that are absolutely unrivalled. But don't expect anything but Kore statues, some (absolutely amazing) pediments and classical friezes; you won't find the history of the acropolis here. I am, however, even so, convinced that the average tourist will find this museum far more attractive and entertaining than any other in Greece.
Entrance fee: 5 Euro, free for European students under the age of 25, see website for details.
Photos: not allowed.
Cafè: above my expectations.
Museum shop: actually two, equally disappointing and expensive. But I'm not a museum shop person.
Notice: any visitor suffering from acrophobia should be aware that the glass floors may become a major problem at some points.
The looks. The museum is simply an amazing building, worth seeing on its own.
The quality of the artefacts.
The biased picture given by the material selected for the exhibitions.
The lack of post classical material? Seriously, there has to be more than this.
The usage of space. I have seldom found such a small area within such a large building.
The museum is, in the end, not so much a museum over the Acropolis as a new Parthenon of Athens, a monument of the modern Greek image of the country's glorious past and a showcase for the late archaic and early classical period. Nothing is allowed to contaminate this pure, white, piece of imagination so well captured by Winkelmans words "edle Einfalt und stille Groesse".
Get it now!