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The museum beneath the museum

The New Acropolis Museum [1] is not just a museum housing finds from the Athenian Acropolis. Beneath the raised structure of the building, is another exhibit – the archaeological remains discovered on the site during construction & now displayed in-situ.

Wall Street Journal [2]

At the Foot of the Acropolis

What could present more of a challenge than designing a major new building to stand at the foot of the Acropolis, revered as one of the great architectural achievements of Western civilization? That new structure is the €130 million ($182.9 million) Acropolis Museum, which, after more than 30 years in the making, finally opened to the public on June 20. Braving the blazing sun and heat, crowds by the thousands thronged its gates eager to be among the first to explore the museum’s vast collection of sculptures and artifacts from ancient Greece.

Efforts to create the museum began as far back as the 1970s. The last attempt, launched in 2003 under the Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi’s leadership, was dogged by years of delays caused by archaeologists and local residents. At first there was public resistance to the design of the museum — whose three-level glass and steel structure was deemed far too modern to complement the classical style of the ancient temple. More delays were caused by the difficulties of transporting delicate exhibits from the old museum atop the Acropolis to the new one below. Now visitors enter the new building by climbing a ramp that faintly echoes the slope up to the Acropolis.

The 46,000-square-foot museum displays more than 4,000 artifacts dating from the fifth century B.C., including items that, thanks to a shortage of display space, had previously remained in storage. “Unlike other big European museums such as the Louvre and the British Museum in London, this museum is the only one of its kind which includes finds and artifacts from one archaeological site — the Acropolis,” says Acropolis head curator Alexandros Mantis.

One of the museum’s highlights is the Parthenon Gallery on the top floor — a glass chamber angled 23 degrees to directly face the Parthenon itself, 800 feet away. Here, all of the sculptures of the Parthenon currently in Athens have been placed together for the first time, and the 525-foot frieze depicting a religious procession has been mounted in an unbroken sequence as it would have been on the temple. Plaster reproductions fill in the blank spots left by original sections of the frieze that were removed from the temple in the early 19th century; on display since 1816 in the British Museum in London, they are known as the Elgin Marbles.

With the opening of the new museum, Greece now says it has adequate display space for the original marbles, which the British Museum has refused to return.

More than half of the surviving Parthenon sculptures were taken from the temple by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century, and sold to the British Museum. Greece was then under Turkish rule.

“Even with the plaster copies of what is in the British Museum, the frieze tells a story in context of the Parthenon itself,” says the museum’s director, Dimitrios Pandermalis. “Sooner or later the marbles in the British Museum will find their natural homes. [Of] this I am certain.”

But perhaps the most interesting component of the building can be found on its first level: an important archaeological discovery made during construction.

Athenians love to boast that if you dig anywhere in the Greek capital you are likely to find archaeological treasures. That has certainly been true in the case of the new museum.

A decade of excavation work, the largest to take place in central Athens, caused extensive delays to the building’s construction but unveiled an ancient city beneath the museum site — inhabited from the golden age of the fifth century B.C. to the mid-Byzantine period in the 12th century.

The uncovered ruins include the remains of private villas, bathhouses, workshops and cisterns. Archaeologists say these new findings shed more light on the evolution of this birthplace of democracy than any other discovery to date.

“Thankfully, due to the construction of the new museum we were able to conduct the biggest-ever dig near the Acropolis and were given insight into people’s daily habits and the way they worshipped,” says Stamatia Eleftheratou, who headed the excavation. “We knew that we would find antiquities when construction began, but what we did not expect was to find so many and in such a well-preserved state.”

The dig revealed thousands of pieces, ranging from children’s toys and cooking utensils to a near-perfectly preserved fourth century B.C. marble bust of the Aristotle, as well as a two-sided Roman coin featuring the head of Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, on one side and a pair of daggers on the other.

“Almost all of the ancient homes that we found in this area contained specially designed rooms where lectures or symposiums took place — this is an important indication that the inhabitants were quite wealthy,” says Ms. Eleftheratou.

Mr. Tschumi, known for his radical theories on poststructuralist architecture in the 1960s and ’70s, added wide expanses of glass that are cut into the floor throughout the three-level museum to allow visitors to look down into the ancient city. His minimalist style is incorporated throughout the building, which features vast open spaces, natural light and unobtrusive columns.

For Ms. Eleftheratou, an archaeologist from the Greek Culture Ministry, the findings have been a dream discovery. For the architects building the museum, they were a major challenge.

Under the suspicious and watchful eye of hundreds of archaeologists, many of whom did not want the museum built above an ancient city, Mr. Tschumi decided to raise the entire building on huge concrete columns, enabling the museum’s entry plaza and first floor to hover over the site.

He spent months negotiating with academics on how to preserve the artifacts as much as possible while at the same time planting concrete pillars into the ground to stabilize the museum against earthquakes. In many cases the supports are erected only a few inches away from the millennia-old walls.

In an effort to avert destruction, archaeologists filled the site with truckloads of sand for protection during construction and are currently in the process of once again uncovering the ancient neighborhood, which will open to visitors next year.

Ms. Pirovolakis is a journalist based in Athens.