The National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Museum Review by Patrik Klingborg

National Archaeological Museum
As it was March 13th 2011 (off season)

Just a casual mention of Athens National Archaeological Museum should make anyone with the slightest of interests in classical history look up. The national Museum you say - in Athens? Surely it holds treasures of unmentionable value and beauty! But have you been there? My answer would of course be yes. But it would be said with much less enthusiasm than what you might expect from a classicist.

National Archaeological Museum

But, before turning our attention to that, let’s begin with how to get to the museum. I find that the easiest way to is to take the metro to Omonia as the museum isn’t, in contrast to many other major museums, located at any major hub of transportation. From there you have to walk along a rather unpleasant street for about 600 meters until the museum turns up on the right hand side. You’ll also have the lovely experience of trying to cross the very lively Greek traffic. Another important thing to note is that you’re not only imagining the people taking drugs (the heavier kinds). They are. Avoid close contact at all cost.

The museum building itself is quite old and built in a strict, rather laconic, neoclassical fashion. It’s actually quite odd, I normally, as a classical archaeologist, appreciate that kind of architecture, but I find it dull in this case. Don’t misunderstand me here, it’s certainly not ugly, it just gives me a somewhat boring and plain impression.

You’ll immediately notice that you’re in a Greek museum as you enter. There are always a couple of guards sitting down doing absolutely nothing and the ticket office looks far too small in the large room. Now, this is unfortunately the point where the most disappointing piece of news and my biggest, and only real, complaint about this museum must be brought up. You cannot come here, expecting to see everything. Most people will surely interpret this as a problem sprung out of the museums size and sure, it is big. Very big. But it is possible to get through it all, although you would need to be quite stubborn to do it. The problem is that the guards claim that the museum is understaffed, something which comes out as absolutely ridiculous, and therefore close off certain exhibitions from time to time. This seems to primarily affect the Vase and Nobel Metals (sometimes only the latter, it actually took me well over a year to even realize that it existed) collections, but the Post Classical Statues and the Metal collections seems to be off limits about 30% of the time. There are also two minor rooms which seems to be closed at all times, one with herms and another of unknown content – I have only managed to get into the first one once in well over 15 visits. It is, however, in the end more of an issue of unreliability than anything else. You must be able to go to a museum knowing that half of it isn’t seemingly randomly closed off.

Athens Museum

Anyway, if you follow the guards somewhat annoyed waving you’ll probably begin your visit in the Bronze Age exhibition. Here they’ve collected material from the Greek prehistory. On the left hand side you’ll find a sub exhibition consisting mainly of Stone Age shards and on the left a quite good Cycladic section with some impressive figurines. Straight ahead, on the other hand, you’ll be staring into the so famous gold mask that is said to have prompted Schliemann into sending a message to the king of Greece saying that he had gazed upon the face of Agamemnon (see O. Dickinson 2005, The “Face of Agamemnon” for more on this topic). The rest of the exhibition is to be found behind it; I have seldom seen so much gold in one place and the quality of the other finds surely compensate for their lack of noble metals. Another thing I enjoyed was the size of the collection, just enough to not get tired, yet not too small. This is, in the end, the best Bronze Age exhibition I’ve been to, although I do believe that the one in Heraklion will prove to be more than a match once reopened.

Where to go next can turn out to be trickier than expected. Two massive doors tempt the visitor to go on straight ahead from the Bronze Age section. Don’t fall for it; you’ll miss not only the Archaic and Classical statue collection but also the bronzes. Turn back instead and go to your right as you leave the mask of Agamemnon behind you.

You should now be entering the Archaic and Classical part of the museum, primarily dedicated to sculpture, but you’ll also find some other pieces like the Dipylon Amphora. It’s a good thing that you simply can’t miss it as it’s standing in the middle of the first room – the vessel is an unequaled masterpiece. The museum takes a very traditional approach here and most of the pieces are placed along the walls in chronological order. Some people dislike this, but I find it somewhat calming and it certainly makes it easy for the visitor to remember what he or she has seen. Not to mention how clearly you can study the (presumed) development of Greek art. What strikes me though, more than the quality of the finds, is the selection; the Archaic period is represented almost exclusively by Korous (male youths) statues. The period of transition and the Early Classical times are somewhat more diverse, but the pieces from, say, 400 to 300 BC seems to consist of nothing but very similarly looking grave monuments. Viewing them gets somewhat tedious after a while. Another problem here is that it’s quite easy to miss a number of small side rooms, sometimes, seemingly randomly, closed off, containing a number of highlights, one of them being the ancient copy of the Athena Parthenos statue. The same goes for the fairly well hidden bronze collection which you enter somewhere in the middle of the Classical exhibition – I still pass it by mistake from time to time.

Athens Museum

I could elaborate on the bronze section but a small number of words will have to do. True, they do have some impressive pieces, like the Antikythera device, but the exhibition feels almost as archaic as many of the finds. It’s consistently dark, dusty and quite dull. Finally the signs bother me a bit; couldn’t you tell me a little bit more about that figurine I was interested in than that it is goat? I would actually figure out that much on my own. I would, however, like to complement them on the case describing how large scale bronze statues were produced.

If you somehow managed to get through this wing of the museum, without either getting lost or utterly confused, you’ll hopefully find yourself in a bright red room in stark contrast to the rest of the place. Fair enough, the statues are still lined around the walls with an especially impressive piece in the center, but the quality of the pieces will no doubts get your attention. If I could only visit one room in the museum this would be it. Most people find themselves drawn to the second floor at this point and almost miss a splendid collection of sculptures related to Hercules. Take a deep breath and have a good look, it’s worth it.

The second floor holds the, by far, most impressive vase collection I have ever seen. You hardly even need an interest in classics to enjoy most of the pieces here. Or that’s at least what I believe. Chronologically ordered it spans from the Bronze Age into the early Hellenistic period and reminds me a lot of the statue collections but more aesthetically pleasing. As a bonus you’ll find another sub exhibition which seems to be a mix or noble metals, glass, high quality jewelry, random vessels and terracotta’s. It’s unfortunately very seldom open so don’t count on seeing it, but take a look if you get a chance. I certainly found it worth my time.

The second separate part of this floor contains one of the most exciting exhibitions you’ll see in Athens, at least if you’re interested in the Aegean Bronze Age – finds from Thera (Santorini). A city there, today called Akrotiri, was buried by a volcano in a way very similar to the much more famous Pompeii. And yes they do have a small number of plaster casts, although not of people. They also have some superbly preserved full scale wall paintings some 3600 years old. Most impressive.

Going down from the second floor you’ll pass the Hercules exhibition once again and then, presumably, turn to your left where the Post Classical Sculpture wing begins. It’s very similar to the Archaic and Classical wing so a longer explanation is hardly needed, but few pieces really caught my attention, although the overall quality is, no doubt, high. I might very well have been somewhat blinded by this point.

Finally there’s the café and garden. The former is easy enough to find and quite a number of visitors seems to end up there at some point; it is fairly modern and stylish but reminds me a little of a bunker as it’s situated somewhat underground. The later on the other hand, which can be accessed directly from the café, was one of my favorite parts of the museum. It’s green and pleasant while containing some very rare pieces such as Farnese Hercules from the Anitkythera wreck. If you need a short break from your visit, this is a far better place to go to than the café.

I would, in the end, recommend a visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, and one with high expectations. The collection is unique and truly amazing. But remember that everything that gleams isn’t gold - you might be somewhat disappointed, although more by the ways of the modern Greeks than the works of the ancient.

Entrance Fee: 7€
Photos: only serious ones (no funny faces while posing) and without flash.
Café: not bad for a Greek museum, but it didn’t really make me want to stay there.
Museum Shop: not very impressive, but not too bad.
Notice: you will probably need more than one visit to see it all even if everything is open.

- The collections are amazing, one of the very best there is. Anyone with an interest in art and archaeology must come here.
- The café garden, an oasis in a world of concrete.

- You cannot rely on the whole museum being open. It is not fun to get there and pay the 7 € entrance fee only to discover that the collection you wanted to see is closed.
- The guards. There is no reason for them to just sit on a chair doing nothing all day but telling tourists that posing with statues isn’t allowed unless you do it in a serious and sober manner.
- The biased picture given by the collections. Not as bad as the Acropolis Museum, but it’s certainly still present.

Top pieces:
The Antikythera device –unknown in comparison to many other works but still amazing
The Thera wall paintings
The Anikythera Zeus/Poseidon
The Artemision Jockey
The “Mask of Agamemnon”
The Dipylon Amphora
And many more…

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