New Acropolis Museum

The Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon sculptures lodged at the British Museum since 1816, have long been a bone of contention between Greece and Great Britain. During the early nineteenth century when Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire, British ambassador Lord Elgin acquired them from local Ottoman authorities. Greece calls what he did illegal looting, Britain calls it legal purchase. The new Acropolis Museum is intended as a fresh thrust in the tussle between the two nations.

The contrast between the old and new Acropolis Museums couldn’t be starker. The former one lay inconspicuously behind the Parthenon. Built in 1865 and expanded in the 1950s, it had a dark interior cluttered with marble sculptures, bronzes, and other artifacts found among the various buildings on the Acropolis. Because of its small size, many finds from the area were left in storage. To the casual visitor or student, no discernable curatorial strategy had been used in arranging the displays and, removed as they were from sight of the Acropolis itself, they seemed wrenched out of context.

I visited the collection often as a student in the 1980s, and remembering it didn’t stir me at all with any great enthusiasm for visiting the new museum. It was only my family’s insistence on going there after a visit to the ancient site that got me there at all. Viewing the collection used to be like rummaging in your grandmother’s attic: lots of cool stuff, but you had a hard time seeing it, and received no idea how the parts connected to one another or how they related to a larger world. As a result, it was easy to sympathize with Britain’s claim that Greece had no suitable space in which to care for or display the Elgin Marbles.

The new Acropolis Museum changes all of that.

The new building opened on June 20, 2009, less than a quarter mile from the entrance to the Acropolis itself. Designed by Bernard Tschumi and Mihalis Fotiades, it looks like an angular stack of flat boxes set askew to one another, an early signal of the paradox that you are about to walk into. Although built of glass, steel, and concretemodern through and throughthe structure does a superb job of bringing the ancient world to life with a series of cunning strategies.

Immediately establishing the museum in its environment as a part of Greek history, the archaeological digs on which it is built have been left visible. They can be seen over the edge of the walkway leading to the entrance, and through the heavy glass floors of the entrance hall of building itself. The foundation pillars of the museum are sunk into the underlying bedrock so as not to disturb the excavations, and float on roller bearings so as to withstand the region’s many earthquakes. The ruins date from the classical and early Byzantine eras, and the lower stone walls of small private houses and workshop can be clearly seen.

Once inside, the next signal that you are in no ordinary museum is the first display. A small hoard of coins is set into the glass floor. It spills out of its jar, seemingly where it was found by an archaeologist. You get a delightful sense of impending discovery, such as you might have on a dig, and the tingling promise that the old is turning into something new. That feeling continues as you explore the rest of entrance hall, which is devoted to items found on the slopes of the Acropolis. Some of the finds date back to 3000 B.C. or so, when Greece was in its New Stone Age, and introduce you to the human aspects of the Parthenon’s environment. You can see a scattering of black potsherds, with the name of an unlucky citizen scratched onto them. These were the ballots cast by other Athenians exercising their democratic prerogative, in this case voting to send a fellow citizen into exile. You can also see tableware, pots, toys, and tools from houses and workshops. There are also small terracotta votive offerings and red-figure pottery used in worship of Athena (the patron goddess of the city) as well as to other gods, heroes, and nymphs.

Then you climb up into the main display rooms, up stairs spaced exactly like the stairs leading up into the Acropolis. Owing to the natural light pouring through the plate glass windows, you can see much more of the detail and remnants of paintwork of the sculptures than was ever visible in the old museum. These two upper floors are arranged like archaeological strata to show the two main phases of the Acropolis’s development: you meet first the artifacts from the oldest buildings, dating from the archaic period. Many of the sculptures are easy to recognize from art history booksincluding the Bluebeard pediment and the Calfbearerset at casual angles to one another, with plenty of space around each so that you can have a leisurely encounter them, giving each due consideration. It’s like moving through a cocktail party where some guests, each with a solemn, slight smile, might be holding out a small gift to you, a pomegranate or an olive sprig, which feels both deeply familiar and yet enduringly strange.

Some of the great treasures of the collection have been given a mezzanine to themselves. These are the caryatids, the six statuary maidens that acted as porch columns of the Erechtheum temple. Five are on view (one was lost to Lord Elgin). Athenian legend has it that the remaining caryatids wail at night for the loss of their sister. Unexpectedly, you approach them from behind, which allows you to notice their long, loosely bound hair and the complicated draping of their dresses. Delightfully, you can also look down on them from the glass floor above.

The top floor is dedicated to the classical period. The gem of the collection is the reconstruction of the Parthenon’s frieze, with 92 metopes (small individual bas-reliefs) set behind and below it, as they would have been on the temple itself. Since much of the original stonework resides in museums outside of Greece, the curators have rounded out the collection with high-quality reproductions. The metopes show mythical battles in which civilization triumphed over barbarism. The frieze above shows the PanAthenaia festival, a jostling crowd of horses and riders, strolling dignitaries, and girls carrying Athena’s monumental new robe. Because the metopes stay visible as you walk around the frieze, you can experience in a visceral way that the Athenians were paying tribute to their patron goddess not only for teaching them the arts of civilization, but for making them cunning enough and strong enough to prevail over the savage forces around them. Despite being in a modern concrete and glass building, you feel as though you are on scaffolding walking around the ancient Parthenon as it was 2000 years ago. And here’s the stunner: even as you are being taken back to ancient times within this room, you turn to look behind you and there through the glass looms the present Parthenon, tourists, renovators, cranes, and all.

I visited with my two pre-teens, who had found the splendors of the National Archaeological Museum and of the jewel-like Cycladic Arts Museum utterly tiresome. Here, however, they moved among the displays as if being offered treats. They even begged to return. In fact, you won’t be sorry if you bring your own children. Models of the temple complex on each of the two upper floors help to orient you as you tour them. Arrangements are spaciouschildren aren’t overwhelmed by too much to look at-and are placed so that each piece adds to the meaning of the others around it. A film loop in Greek and English shows the development of the Parthenon over time, as well as its progressive destruction by Christians, Ottomans, Venetians, Lord Elgin, and modern air pollution.

If you need refreshments or souvenirs, you have the choice of an excellent caf overlooking the archaeological dig below, a restaurant facing the Parthenon, and at least two gift shops with a range of good-quality gifts, postcards, and books.

The entrance fee until the end of this year is one euro; afterward it will rise to a mere five euros (around $8). It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 am to 8 pm, and closed January 1, March 25, Easter Day, and December 25-26. Despite the generous hours, be sure to arrive as close to opening time as you can, as the line forms quickly.

Bottom line: It is a vexed issue where the Elgin Marbles ultimately belong. All I can say is that the gauntlet has been thrown down afresh. While the British were once able to say that Greeks had no suitable place for them, the Greeks, by raising the standard of museum-going so high, can now say much the same. The beautifully considered strategies deployed in the new building reveal the Britain’s Elgin Marbles exhibit to be deeply unimaginative and uninspiring. The British Museum clearly needs to rethink and renovate its own curatorial tactics, if it is to continue to claim to have the better venue. As for the casual tourist, the new Acropolis Museum is not only a chance to deepen your understanding of Western tradition as it developed in Athens, and talk about your Platonic ideals!- also to see what a museum experience can and should be. It has established itself as arguably Europe’s must-see museum of the decade: beautiful, coherent, treasure-filled, and a masterpiece of its kind.