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Dimitrios Pantermalis reflects on the New Acropolis Museum

Few people have had such a long running involvement with the New Acropolis Museum project as Professor Dimitrios Pantermalis. Visitors to the construction site of the museum will have regularly seen him, sowing people around & explaining about his plans for the display of artefacts within the building. He has acted as a representative of the government during the course of the building of the museum – an agent making key day to day decisions, so that quick answers could be given rather than referring everything to committees before there could be a response. As any architect knows, a great client is a vital ingredient in creating a great building – anyone who has visited the New Acropolis Museum will agree about its greatness.

Athens Plus [1]

Dimitrios Pandermalis looks back on achievement so far and forward to further projects ahead
From classroom to construction hat: New Acropolis Museum a work in progress

On the corner of his desk, new Acropolis Museum board president Dimitrios Pandermalis keeps an apt symbol of his labors – a replica head of an early Classical statue, wearing a white construction hat.

For the soft-spoken archaeologist, it’s easy to see the appeal of the juxtaposition. Now an emeritus professor, Pandermalis spent decades in the classroom at the University of Thessaloniki before coming to public life, first as a member of Parliament in the mid-90s and then as director of the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum beginning in 2000. And according to several of his colleagues who spoke to Athens Plus this week, it is precisely his ability to blend the academic and the pragmatic, the theoretical and the project-based, the sculptural eye and the construction-hat mentality that has made him – and the museum whose board he now leads – a success.

“I put the helmet on it to show that we’re in construction and now I like it,” Pandermalis says, looking at the sculpture. “It’s an emblem.”

It’s also a reminder that the new museum, which opened its doors to the public for the first time less than two weeks ago, remains a work in progress. So far, there have been no major problems, Pandermalis says, but with daily traffic at around 10,000 visitors per day, some lessons have been inevitable.

After witnessing more than one eager guest touch the ancient sculptures, Pandermalis hopes to more than double the number of attendants working shifts on the floor of the museum so that the exhibits can be better policed. And there is still room to improve the museum’s teaching mission, he says.

“I saw that some people are very relaxed in the museum and like to take photographs with the statues, [be] next to the statues, but sometimes we have to ask them to be a little more appropriate” – he laughs jovially – “we need respect. I think we should educate the visitors, so this is one of the purposes of the museum – to create culture for the visitors.”

These days, Pandermalis rises at around 6 a.m. and is on site at the museum by 9 each morning, he says, beginning a workday that stretches until late in the evening. His office, a spacious Makriyianni Street affair complete with a conference table and a view of the back of the new museum, is comfortable but much of his time is spent at the museum itself, he says.

The demands of the job have an unscheduled quality and it shows – in the space of a 40-minute interview with Athens Plus, Pandermalis is interrupted five times by his mobile phone (apologizing politely each time), once to sign a set of papers and once to have a letter placed on his desk.

In many cases, small details and rapid response can make all the difference and Pandermalis admits that such situations aren’t always pleasant. One of the goals of the new museum, he says, is to promote the presentation of sculpture with natural light – an objective that has required the careful archaeology professor to fiddle almost daily with the regulation of shade and sunlight in his exhibition halls.

The third-floor gallery, a virtual “glass box” at the top of the museum reserved for the Acropolis’s crown jewels, the sculptures of the Parthenon, presents a particular challenge: demanding that light be balanced from several angles. A computer program was devised to handle the delicate corrections, to initially disastrous effects, Pandermalis says.

“I was embarrassed because I guided [a] European commissioner…and I am with her in the Parthenon Hall, and everything [with the lighting] is the opposite from what it’s supposed to be,” he says. “So it’s a catastrophe for me – people don’t realize that, but for me it was a catastrophe; I immediately had to make a break for two minutes to regulate all this with phone calls and such.”

Pandermalis took a similarly details-oriented approach to dealing with the display of his museum’s most hot-button item – the Parthenon frieze, 274 feet of which is currently on exhibit thousands of miles away in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery thanks to the 19th-century English Ambassador Lord Elgin.

Greek culture officials have made no secret of the fact that their new museum is meant to be a deal breaker in the nation’s case that the sculptures should be returned to the Acropolis. And when it came to the tricky question of how to make that case visually – displaying the new Athenian portions of the frieze with plaster replicas of the absent originals – Pandermalis didn’t shy away from experimentation. A plaster cast of a portion of the monument’s west frieze remains on the wall opposite his desk, a reminder of days spent testing different arrangements directly in his office – he says he tried different colorations, and even a mesh veil.

Despite his commitment, the reserved professor’s take on the issue of the Marbles’ ownership, while firm, maintains a diplomatic remove that has been absent in the language of some policymakers.

“Of course we have a problem, because we [only] have around half of the sculpture,” he says. “But we have presented the problem as it is and by our decision to present plaster copies of the pieces that are in the British Museum, we have really a completed idea of the Parthenon, we get a really unique view of the temple’s sculpture and I think this is a great achievement… and we hope one day to replace the plaster copies with originals.”

If the gridlocked debate of decades past is any indication, that hope will be difficult to realize. But Pandermalis, who led the effort to construct the new museum through years of hardship and delays – missed deadlines, budgetary and legal hurdles – vows not to be held down by prior disappointments.

“I knew the situation about that the controversies, the difficulties, and I thought, ‘I will take this risk,’” Pandermalis comments. “But I never could know in advance how difficult and complicated it was. Anyway, it’s over and I don’t think about the past.”