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Mixed review of the New Acropolis Museum

This review seems to like some bits of the New Acropolis Museum, but not others. I guess I shouldn’t have expected unequivocal praise from a site called Grumpy Traveller. In some ways, its liking of the interior far more than the exterior echoes the comments Mary Beard made [1] last year.

Grumpy Traveller [2]

Athens, Greece: Review of the new Acropolis Museum
David Whitley has mixed feeling on Bernard Tschumi’s new showcase for the treasures of the Parthenon.

New Acropolis Museum in Athens

If ever something was on a hiding to nothing, it’s the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. It cost EUR130 to build, is designed to hold many of Greece’s most important national treasures and is already being promoted as a tourism flagship.

Naturally, the critics had a field day before it was even opened. Some pointed to the cost, some to the position at the foot of the Acropolis rather than on it, others to the fact that a Swiss architect – Bernard Tschumi – was employed rather than a Greek.

Bernard Tschumi’s building

Tschumi, predictably, has taken most of the flak. His modernistic building hasn’t won universal acclaim. There are none of the Doric columns that grace the Acropolis’ centrepiece, the Parthenon, and a contemporary building by ancient Greece’s key site is always going to be controversial.

It isn’t the Doric columns that the new Acropolis Museum really misses, however – it’s the subtle curves. Tschumi’s museum just looks a little clunky and blocky from the outside – it’s all straight lines, glass and concrete. One suspects that it may date very quickly. The phrase ‘large municipal library’ springs to mind.

Minimalist interior

Mercifully, the interior is far more impressive. Tschumi has wisely gone for a minimalist look, allowing the exhibits to do the talking. It’s a light, spacious combo of steel pillars, glass walls and marble.

The sensation of ascending to the Acropolis is recreated by themed collections over different levels. The sloping entrance hall takes visitors through the lower levels of the world’s most famous hill, with artefacts from sanctuaries and temples dedicated to nymphs, heroes and lesser gods. The remains – such as a marble table used for funeral sacrifices – are complimented by fascinating explanatory panels. These cover everything from relative popularity of cults to wedding customs.

The route through the galleries leads steadily upwards, past dioramas of the Acropolis from different eras. The museum becomes a highly impressive field of statues, busts and sculptures, all plucked from various temples and sanctuaries that once stood proud.

The museum also incorporates great views of the Acropolis, but let’s face it, the Greeks haven’t spent EUR130m so that people can look out on something they’ve probably already climbed up.

The new Acropolis Museum’s golden crown comes at the top; it’s what makes every cent spent worth it.

Parthenon Gallery

The Parthenon Gallery, as the name would suggest, is an attempt to simulate what is arguably the greatest work of architecture from the ancient world.

The outer walls are all glass, allowing for 360 degree views of the city, and the whole floor is at a different angle to the rest of the building. It runs precisely parallel to the Parthenon, and the displays are to the exact same dimensions.

In the middle there is a large-screen video presentation which explains the Parthenon’s history and the meaning of the many works of art that adorned it. It uses state-of-the-art graphics to recreate what the building once was before the ravages of time, fire and trophy hunters had their wicked way.

The real wow factor, however, is generated by the actual sculptures and carvings from the Parthenon themselves. The roof is recreated in the same dimensions, with natural light shining upon it from the same angles. The intricacy of the stonework can be appreciated; the friezes depicting scenes from the Battle of Troy, mythical encounters and centaurs fighting lapiths are displayed in order. All have been cleaned using laser technology.

Missing stones – the Elgin Marbles

Where the originals are missing – a fair few have been destroyed or are on display in the British Museum – plaster imposters are put in their place. Diagrams and explanatory panels tell the stories.

The pediments are the most impressive, with the sculptures gradually decreasing in size from the centre to fit the slope of the roof.

They also highlight the new Acropolis Museum’s greatest weaknesses and what could be its greatest achievement. The display looks so good, but many of the major figures are in London. They were taken by Lord Elgin whilst Athens was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. Greece has made repeated calls for the Elgin (or Parthenon) marbles to be returned.

The British response has largely been to stick fingers in ears and burble “la la la, can’t hear you.” But one of the major cited reasons for not returning the marbles has been the lack of a suitable place to display them.

Athens now has the perfect pedestal, and the British argument for retention looks increasingly feeble. Hopefully the remnants of the Parthenon can be reunited before long. But until then, the new Acropolis Museum has instantly leapt into the company of the world’s greatest museums.