Troubled history capped with success

When Melina Mercouri decided to turn her dream into reality and announced a competition to design a new museum for the Acropolis in Athens, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Ancient gods of Greece were determined to stop her. The plan to build a new museum was plagued by problems and delays. Architects and contractors went to court to fight for the lucrative contract to design and build the new museum; local residents went to court to protect historic local buildings from demolition; and just when work finally started on the winning design of Manfredi Nicoletti and Lucio Passarelli, an ancient urban development began to emerge from the ground being dug for the foundations. Construction work immediately ground to a halt.

The ancient site could not be destroyed. and so a new competition was organised to design the museum in such a way that the ancient site would be preserved and open to view. This competition was won by Bernard Tschumi, a Swiss-born architect now based in New York. His design involved carefully placed columns to support the building above the ancient settlement and included a glass structure, with views of the nearby Parthenon, which will one day house all the Parthenon Marbles when the British government is finally persuaded to return those in its possession to Greece.

With the new design chosen, time was running out to complete the New Acropolis Museum in time for the Athens Olympics of 2004. More delays meant that sadly that deadline was missed and it wasn't until 2007 that the building was finally completed. Next, all the exhibits from the old Acropolis Museum plus the many thousands of artefacts which had never been exhibited in that inadequate museum had to be transported to the new museum.

The New Acropolis Museum finally opened to the public on June 21, 2009. Nearly 4,000 objects were put on display (ten times more than the old museum) over an area of 14,000 square metres. The museum stands at the foot of the Acropolis, only 280 metres as the crow flies from the Parthenon. Within two months over half a million people had visited the new museum and the official website was visited by people from literally every country in the world.

On 8 November 2010, the New Acropolis Museum won the British Guild of Travel Writers' (BGTW) prestigious global award for the Best Worldwide Tourism Project for 2010. Yiorgos Nikitiadis, deputy minister of culture and tourism, received the award representing the Greek government. He thanked the organizers and noted the return of the Parthenon Marbles should now just be a matter of time!

A tour of the Museum

The Museum's collections are located on three different levels. Entry to the first level is by a sloping ramp with a glass floor, giving views of the ancient urban settlement below.

The first level displays finds from the settlement and sanctuaries on the slopes of the Acropolis. The next level contains a large trapezoidal hall which houses the archaic finds. Also on the this level are artefacts from the other buildings on the Acropolis, apart from the Parthenon itself. These buildings include the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea.

The Acropolis Museum
Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis

The third level, the Parthenon hall, contains the Parthenon sculptures which were not taken to England by Elgin. Plaster copies of the sculptures hed in the British Museum have been placed in their approriate places in the frieze so that for the first time in 200 years visitors can see the frieze as it was before Elgin got his hands on it.

Unlike the British Museum, where the frieze sculptures are propped up against the walls of the room in which they are displayed, in the New Acropolis Museum the frieze is displayed as it would have looked on the Pathenon itself. In other words the frieze is displayed in the centre of the hall facing outwards (see photo right) and you walk round it like you would have walked round the Temple of Athena to see the frieze in its original position.

Visitors to the museum are able to see the Parthenon from the glass gallery. Moreover, the design of the Museum allows exhibits to be seen in natural light and incorporates a number of on-site excavations, including a large urban settlement dating from Archaic to Early Christian Athens, (see below). The contrast with the present display of the Parthenon Marbles in London could hardly be greater.

Work has begun on restoring the Caryatids, the statues of females (Kore), from the porch of the Erechtheion. Visitors can see the conservators at work, cleaning the Caryatids with advanced laser technology.

And of course there are plenty of facilities for visitors including a cafe, restaurant and museum shop. The museum also boasts an amphitheatre, a virtual theatre and a hall for temporary exhibitions.

Watch the short YouTube introduction to the New Acropolis Museum below.


Glass floor shows off Ancient Roman, Early Christian urban settlement

Professor Snodgrass, Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology, University of Cambridge, was part of a British team to visit the site of the New Acropolis Museum during its construction. Here he reports on the exciting plans to make the ancient urban development discovered during the digging of the foundations open to public view.

The new Acropolis Museum represents a notably fine and acclaimed design, destined to become world-famous. Furthermore, construction is being accompanied by an equally rare degree of sensitivity and respect for the ancient structures brought to light in the preparation of its site.

The Acropolis Museum
Photo by Maarten Dirkse

Together with the Vice-Chairman (Mr. Christopher Price) and the Secretary (Mrs. Eleni Cubitt) of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, and Executive Director (Mr. David Hill) I was given a conducted tour of the site of the new Museum by the Director of the project, Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis. The main focus of the visit was on the archaeological excavations which will underlie the new building.

Besides being impressively preserved, these remains have the added interest of belonging mainly to the later Roman Imperial and Early Christian eras which, in Greece as in many Mediterranean countries, have been less fully studied than their predecessors. This makes it particularly fortunate that they are to receive such special treatment. A small sector of the site, in accordance with standard archaeological practice with well-preserved but fragile architecture, will be back-filled with loose earth. Another sector will be open to the air, but covered by a projecting canopy which forms part of the design of the new building. But the largest sector of all will become one of the showpieces of the Museum itself, viewed from above through glass panels in the floor of the ramp by which visitors climb up to the galleries. Bernard Tschumi's winning design for the building places it on a series of upright supports, and these will be carefully located so as to avoid piercing ancient floors or walls.

New Acropolis Museum website

The splendid website of the New Acropolis Museum is available in Greek and English. Click here for the English language version.

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