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Special feature on the New Acropolis Museum

Many of the press in Greece have been producing special features in supplements in the run up to the opening of the New Acropolis Museum [1]. Athens Plus has produced one in English, that gives an overview of many aspects of the museum from its inception & aims to it current realisation. I encourage people to view the original article in PDF form at the web address given below to see the numerous photos that accompany the text.

Athens Plus [2]

Friday, June 19, 2009
New Acropolis Museum opens its doors
Modern building housing thousands of antiquities is finally ready to welcome visitors

After a long wait, the New Acropolis Museum, the most significant landmark to grace the cultural landscape of Athens in years, will open its doors following its inauguration on Saturday.

Priceless artifacts, some of which have been hidden away for years, will be displayed in surroundings especially designed to showcase their splendor. Athens Plus examines the impact of the new museum on the city, the debate about its design, what visitors can expect to see and whether it strengthens Greece’s case for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.

The Acropolis is more than the Parthenon

As the Acropolis and its monuments declare to the world, nothing makes a grander statement than a grand building. Thucydides, in his unforgettable chronicle of the decline and fall of Athens, noted that in the future people would look on the ruins of his city and consider it greater than it was, while the ruins of its great rival, Sparta, would make the Peloponnesian city appear less mighty than it was. Athens’s fortunes have waxed and waned at the foot of the Acropolis for more than 2,500 years and the rocky hill and its monuments have reflected this. Free people celebrating their triumph over foreign invaders built the Parthenon and its temples on the smoldering ruins that a Persian army had left behind after a debate on whether it would be best to preserve the ruins as eternal condemnation of the desecration or to push aside the past and build for the present – and posterity.

The outcome of that argument was decisive in shaping our civilization – and in creating a heritage for Greeks through the ages. The Greeks did many great things in philosophy, medicine and the arts but nothing concentrated their achievements more than the buildings and sculptures on the Acropolis. The polemics over the Parthenon and its sculptures – especially those in the British Museum for the past 200 years – often overshadow the fact that the Parthenon may be the grandest but is not the only building on the Acropolis. The “Sacred Rock” as Greeks call it, has a history dating back long before the Golden Age of Pericles, when the ruins that we now see were built. And the naturally fortified hill that allowed prehistoric tribes to settle on this once-fertile plain has a long tale to tell. The saga of the missing Marbles is a chapter in that long story, one that will end when they return to join those in the New Acropolis Museum. For now, the missing Marbles tell the story of the Parthenon during the long night of the Ottoman occupation, when the Greeks were unable to protect their treasures from destruction and theft. The shattered shell of the Parthenon underlines the vulnerability of a nation caught in endless war. The ongoing preservation works tell the story of mistakes in past preservation projects and the effects of modern Athens’s chronic air pollution.

The new museum highlights the missing Marbles’ absence by stressing where they would have been if they were here. This finger-pointing, too, is part of the story. But, as every visitor will see, the Acropolis hosts not only the Parthenon but also the Erechtheum, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia, while many of its treasures are a lot older than the sculptures of the Classical era. The new museum will show the development of Greek sculpture by juxtaposing copies of the absent pieces with treasures from other buildings and other eras on the Acropolis. The generous exhibition space will also allow a new appraisal of many overlooked masterpieces that were in storage or cramped into the tight corners of the old museum.

The rock of the Acropolis is the touchstone of Greece’s fortunes. The New Acropolis Museum, built after a delay of decades, is a declaration by the people of this land that they honor their past not by crying over lost glory but by protecting it, displaying it in the best possible way, and by creating a new public space that will change the way the city, its people and visitors interact with the Acropolis and its treasures. And the best way to get the missing sculptures back is to embarrass those who hold them by showing them up as unwitting players in a story that is so much bigger than them.

New museum is a ‘treasure house’ for locals and tourists
A landmark in country’s postwar history

There has been much debate about the aesthetics of the ultramodern New Acropolis Museum and relatively little about the impact of its long-awaited opening on millions of Greeks and visitors. Internationally, the inauguration of the imposing creation by Swissborn architect Bernard Tschumi is the most significant event in Greece since the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Culturally, it is indisputably the most important landmark in the country’s postwar history, containing exhibits of major global importance that put it on a level with many of the world’s most famous museums. But, authorities tell Athens Plus, the controversial structure also constitutes an invaluable gift to Athenians and tourists alike.

“The New Acropolis Museum is the most significant contribution to the infrastructure of Greece’s contemporary culture and accentuates the veritable treasure house that we Greeks have inherited,” said Angelos Moschonas, chairman of the City of Athens Cultural Organization.

An online debate about the museum launched by Kathimerini earlier this month suggests that many citizens appreciate the museum though the majority find the structure aesthetically questionable. “We need projects like this; we need museums, because, as a country, we have a real history to project,” a reader called Maria noted. “It is a museum that actively draws the visitor to it, something that we have not grown used to in Greece,” another commentator called Panos remarked.

The museum is also expected to consolidate the capital’s place on the global tourist map, attracting some 10,000 visitors a day and about 2 million every year, an influx that Culture Minister Antonis Samaras believes will shift public opinion in favor of the Parthenon Marbles’ return.

“We are certain that the operation of the New Acropolis Museum will contribute significantly to the flow of tourists into Athens and will reinforce the city’s identity as a destination with a unique cultural heritage,” Panayiotis Arkoumaneas, CEO of the Athens Tourism and Economic Development Company, said.

Many also see the inauguration of the museum as an opportunity for a broader revamp of the city. Already, the broader area of Makriyianni Street has been upgraded with pedestrianization and the planting of trees and shrubs. The transformation is said to have pushed up local real estate prices, so that they rival property values in the upmarket Kolonaki district and the affluent northern suburbs.

Meanwhile, there is speculation that the super-modern facility will trigger the upgrade of other museums around the country.

Greek quest for Marbles is one for the ages
Discussions with British Museum continue but two sides far apart

Even before its Saturday opening date, it appeared that the New Acropolis Museum, the 130-millioneuro embodiment of many Greek hopes for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, would have a limited impact in shifting an international debate that has been raging for more than 200 years. And while, as Athens Plus has learned, discussion about the future home of the priceless artifacts is continuing, indicating that the struggle is not yet at a stalemate, no resolution appeared to be in sight late this week as Greek officials prepared to unveil the structure.

Despite the enthusiasm in Greece about the new museum, its opening is being greeted cautiously by the British Museum, which has sent a rather low-key representation, consisting of Deputy Chairman of the Trustees Bonnie Greer and Lesley Fitton, keeper of the Greek and Roman Department, to this weekend’s inauguration.

“The opening of the New Acropolis Museum is warmly welcomed by the British Museum. It is a great achievement and should be rightly celebrated,” Hannah Boulton, a spokesperson for the British Museum, told Athens Plus. “However, it doesn’t alter our view that the sculptures in the Museum’s collection should remain here as part of the unique overview of world cultures that the British Museum exists to present.”

From the Greek perspective, the opening of the museum strengthens the argument for the Marbles to be returned. The International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, which represents committees from 16 countries, wrote to the British Museum and the British government last week arguing that the New Acropolis Museum is a more suitable place to display the Marbles than the Duveen Gallery in London. It also suggested that more people now visit the Acropolis each year than see the Marbles in London.

But as far as the British Museum is concerned, Boulton said, the lack of a proper place to house the Marbles in Greece has never been a stumbling block. “The Museum does not argue that Greece had nowhere to display the sculptures in its collection,” she said. “The Trustees of the Museum argue that the sculptures, which have been on public display in London for nearly 200 years, are a vital part of the Museum’s unique worldwide collection. There is a huge public benefit to visitors to be able to see the world under one roof.”

This is a point of view shared by James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of “Who Owns Antiquity?” and “Whose Culture?” – two books that examine the thorny issue of ownership of cultural property.

“It is often said that turning the sculpture fragments over to the New Acropolis Museum would be to restore them to their proper context, but that context is not the Parthenon itself, nor even their original site – that context would be another museum, and a museum dedicated only to the sculpture of the Acropolis,” he told Athens Plus. “In the British Museum, visitors from around the world can view these objects in the context of other sculptures, those that preceded and succeeded the Parthenon sculptures and those from cultures that neighbored or were distant from Athens.”

“The Parthenon Marbles are significant for the world. They needn’t be in Athens to make that point,” said Cuno. “Indeed, broadening access to them by having representative examples in major cultural capitals around the world makes the point all the more.”

Despite the evident gulf between the Greek stance and that of the world’s universal museums, there are at least signs that both sides have not given up on forging a meeting of the minds. Boulton revealed that discussions with Greek authorities are ongoing and that the two sides recently set out their arguments at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting. A UNESCO spokesperson informed Athens Plus that both sides have invited Director General of UNESCO Koichiro Matsuura “to assist in convening necessary meetings between them with the aim of reaching a mutually acceptable solution to the issue of the Parthenon Marbles.”

Greece has recently had some success in securing the return of fragments of the Parthenon – permanently from the University of Heidelberg and on loan from Palermo in Italy and the Vatican. The British Museum is open to the idea of lending the Marbles so they can be put on display in the New Acropolis Museum, Boulton said.

“The Trustees have always said they would consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed for a limited period and then returned,” she said. “But the precondition is that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership of the objects.”

Here, the different points of view seem to be irreconcilable. The Greeks have historically balked at any action that could suggest official recognition of the British Ambassador Lord Elgin’s decision to remove the Marbles from Greece in the early 19th century. To recognize British ownership, Culture Minister Antonis Samaras told British newspaper the Guardian this week, “would be tantamount to accepting that what Elgin did was right.”

Samaras appears convinced that Greece’s argument for the Marbles is gaining momentum and that the space in the new museum set aside for the sculptures will not be wasted. “What we’re doing here is unique and everything that came out in Western culture stems from what we see in the museum,” the minister continued. “The pressure will mount. It’s 207 years [since they were taken]; that’s a long time,” he said.

Unless some compromise is found, the last two centuries will prove just the beginning of a debate that, in keeping with spirit of the Parthenon, has already grown to epic proportions.

Parthenon Marbles:
Significant dates

1801 With Greece under Ottoman rule, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople, begins transporting the Parthenon sculptures from the Acropolis to Britain. The collection amassed by Elgin eventually included 247 feet of the original 524 ft Parthenon frieze, according to the British Museum’s website.

1816 The British Parliament purchases the Marbles from Lord Elgin for 35,000 pounds. The following year, the sculptures are put on permanent display at the British Museum, where they remain to this day.

1938 After art dealer Lord Joseph Duveen offered to fund a new gallery specifically for the display of the Marbles, the sculptures were subjected to a notoriously controversial cleaning that some allege damaged their surface. The new gallery was completed in 1938, but because of delays caused by World War II, the sculptures were not displayed there until 1962. The Duveen Gallery remains the home of the Marbles today.

1981 Former actress Melina Mercouri is appointed as Greece’s minister of culture. Mercouri would go on to spearhead an international publicity effort to lobby the British government for the return of the Parthenon Marbles that defined her eight years in office and generated much of the modern attention on the issue.

September, 2003 After failed attempts at a similar project in 1976, 1979 and 1989, ground is finally broken on the site of the New Acropolis Museum, designed by Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi, and intended, according to Greek officials, to strengthen efforts to secure the return of the Marbles.

June 20, 2009 Official date for the inauguration of the New Acropolis Museum, which will feature a thirdfloor exhibit intended to one day house the Parthenon Marbles.

Fresh display for ancient treasures
Interior design is impressive but may compromise certain exhibits

The opening this weekend of the New Acropolis Museum heralds the beginning of a major new era in Greece’s presentation of the ancient Acropolis and its monuments. Make no mistake, this magnificent new exhibition hall will rank in importance alongside other great European museums, including the British Museum, the Louvre and the Capitoline Museums. Controversies may have arisen in the past regarding the design and construction of the building but, whatever architectural problems remain, they surely will be addressed through time.

The ancient Greek treasures displayed inside the new museum are the real draw and they will impress visitors with their unique, unquestionable artistry. Most importantly, their spacious, gleaming surroundings area huge improvement over the tiny, cramped, semi-subterranean museum in which they were once housed on top of the Acropolis. The new museum, with more than 14,000 square meters of exhibition space is about 10 times larger than the old museum. Right from the start, visitors can expect to see a great deal more of the Culture Ministry’s rich ancient collections kept so long under wraps in backrooms around the city.

The new museum’s exhibition program spans the history of the Acropolis and its adjacent slopes, from prehistoric times through late antiquity. In an interesting departure from the strictly chronological organization of so many Greek museums, the basic timeline flow of the new museum’s displays is occasionally interrupted, shown out of sequence or interwoven with experiential topographical displays.

This fresh approach becomes apparent even before one enters the building, since the first display visitors encounter is the exposed, excavated remains of a 4th-7th-century AD Athenian neighborhood visible below the museum’s entrance. As visitors pass over these foundations into the lobby, they move back in time. After the ticket turnstiles, the floor slopes upward to a wide staircase in a reflection of the rising ground around the Acropolis. Recessed cases and freestanding displays along this hall feature objects from sanctuaries and other sites located around the Acropolis hill.

On the first floor are Mycenaean, Geometric, Archaic and transitional Severestyle displays, including the impressive Archaic Sculpture Gallery: a large space with a soaring ceiling and a forest of oversized structural columns. From this level, visitors are directed upward, past the second floor, which holds a restaurant, shop, VIP lounge and multimedia center, to the Parthenon Gallery on the uppermost, third floor.

This is an extraordinary rectangular space, surrounded by glass walls and stunning views of the Acropolis and Athens. Visitors proceed 360 degrees around the gallery, able to view, for the first time, the Parthenon’s sculpted frieze and metopes arranged in a continuous sequence as they would have been on the outside of the ancient building. The three-dimensional sculptural groups of the temple’s east and west pediments are displayed at each end. Where the original panels or sculptures are missing – as in the case of the Parthenon Marbles – exact replicas have been installed to fill the gaps. Upon leaving the Parthenon Gallery, visitors descend once again to the first floor, where a final gallery presents the Erechtheion’s caryatids, the Athena Nike temple’s parapet sculptures (including the delightful “Nike Adjusting her Sandal”) and other distinctive artifacts dating to between the 5th century BC and 5th century AD.

The museum has many fine points to appreciate. The flood of natural light and spacious galleries are most welcome. Also important is the sensitivity that has been shown to the antiquities and excavations that lay beneath the museum. The designers’ management of the issue represents an enormous step forward and is a positive statement that should be heeded by developers anywhere archaeological remains lie in the path of the bulldozer.

Still of concern, however, is the way in which authorities plan to provide access to the new museum. With an official expectation of 10,000 visitors per day, how can the new museum accommodate such crowds? Even if the museum were to remain open 10 hours a day, 1,000 visitors would still have to move through the museum every hour, not the 750 per day presently prescribed. Perhaps more disturbing is the choice of display for the extraordinary Archaic sculptures on the museum’s first floor. The Archaic Gallery’s design is indeed impressive but the magnificent ancient sculptures are dwarfed and lost among the gallery’s forest of giant concrete columns.

This begs the question: Which is the main attraction here – the antiquities or the building?

The New Acropolis Museum in numbers

1 euro
entrance fee until the end of the year, with tickets available online at www.theacropolismuseum.gr

5 euros
entrance fee from January 1, 2010

2 million
visitors expected every year

21,000 square meters
space occupied by the museum, two-thirds of which is exhibition space

7,000 square meters
allocated to the creation of green spaces

4,000 exhibits
to be displayed

16,000 square meters
of marble used in the construction of the museum

4,390 square meters
of glass used in the construction of the museum

130 million euros
cost to build the new museum

280 meters
distance of the new museum from the Parthenon

the year that the first of four competitions to build the museum was held. Bernard Tschumi was eventually awarded the contract in 2000.

‘Like a huge spaceship:’ Beautiful on the inside, but museum exterior splits opinion
Despite international praise, Bernard Tschumi’s minimalist design is largely unloved by local residents and experts

Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss-born architect of usually flashy designs, was smart enough to know that his project should not aim to steal any thunder from the ancient monument on top of the hillside opposite.

“I had to put myself in the 21st century and do a building that would speak best of what we do in the 21st century,” he has said of his latest brainchild, the New Acropolis Museum.

For the past six years, the deconstructivist architect, designer of such headline projects as the 6,000-capacity Concert Hall in Limoges, France, and the Blue Residential Tower in Manhattan, has been traveling from New York to oversee the construction of what has been hailed as one of Greece’s most important public buildings.

Thirty-three years after the first call for a design in 1976, the glass-steel-concrete structure Tschumi designed in collaboration with local architect Michael Photiadis, is finally in place. But far from inviting comparisons to the nearly 2,500-year-old Parthenon, the design has failed to win the hearts of most Athenians.

“It’s like a huge spaceship has landed on top of one of Athens’s oldest neighborhoods,” Stella Ladi, 34, who lives next to the museum, said. “It’s like the building has shoved everything else out of the way; and it keeps growing, pushing more things out of the way.”

Others are even harsher. The museum is “hideous, unacceptable, vulgar, in bad taste, disgusting, an aesthetic disgrace, a crime of aesthetics to the surrounding environment and its sanctity,” reads a vitriolic post on the Kathimerini newspaper website, which hosts a vigorous online debate. So far, the scales appear to tilt heavily against Tschumi’s design.

Strange fruit

Big architecture has never been without controversy. Some commentators have rallied in the museum’s defense, arguing that the largely lukewarm reception perhaps says less about the building per se and more about the people.

“I think it comes down to mentality. People are not comfortable with the unfamiliar. Large public buildings shape the image of a city, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the locals display an aversion toward new, unfamiliar forms,” Afroditi Kirmi, a Londonbased architect said. “This is common around the world, but it is particularly evident in cities like Athens, which carry such a big historical burden.”

Others have taken issue with the fact that the landmark building was designed by a foreign hand. To Kirmi, such reluctance seems unfair. “After all, Athens’s first modern city plan was designed by a foreigner, as was the National Library and other buildings that have shaped modern Athens,” she said.

Tschumi has described the museum as “anti-Bilbao,” suggesting that the content is more important that the building itself. But local experts remain unconvinced, many expressing misgivings about the design.

Panos Dragonas, an architect and assistant professor at the University of Patras, does acknowledge that the style is “simple, stark and modern,” expressing the spirit of a modern city. But the symbolic significance of the building that sits facing the Acropolis, known as the Holy Rock, and which houses some of the most valuable treasures of classical antiquity, goes far beyond familiar, everyday reality, he notes.

“I find that the building displays a certain aggression toward the neoclassical element of the city and a lack of moderation in terms of certain choices concerning fundamental functional and compositional parameters,” he told Athens Plus.

Foreigners have been far kinder. “A building that is both an enlightening meditation on the Parthenon and a mesmerizing work in its own right. I can’t remember seeing a design that is so eloquent about another work of architecture,” The New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote. According to the British newspaper the Guardian, the structure is no less than “a geometrical marvel… unpretentious, well-built and wearing its ingenuity lightly.”

In any case, some of the biggest snags dogging the new museum have had less to do with the project’s architecture than with the policy decisions behind it. Most controversial has been the designation of a specific plot of land for the project in the middle of the already-crammed Makriyianni area. A number of houses had to be razed, often under controversial circumstances, to make room for the gigantic newcomer.

As a result, the land-locked building is crunched for space, popping its head, as it were, from an ocean of nondescript apartment buildings sprawled along the southern foot of the hill and jockeying for air with the immediately adjacent, heritage-listed Weiler Building.

The ruins, including private houses of the early Christian era (AD 400-600), unearthed during construction, have ensured that the new museum lacks underground storage or parking space. The architects have successfully turned the problem into an asset by making extensive use of glazed floor panels that allow visitors to glance at the discoveries under their feet. But even that bit of architectural sleight-of-hand has done nothing to allay worries about the impact of the museum on the broader area.

Ladi, who has lived in the district for the past four years, is naturally worried about the increased traffic generated by the new tourist attraction. “The number of buses clogging the streets and vying for parking space has soared, as there is no garage,” she complained.

New vs old

Meanwhile, final ruling has not yet come on the fate of two listed buildings – a 1930s art deco gem and a neoclassical house – that flank the museum and block the view to the Parthenon. The Central Council for Modern Monuments has lifted their designation as listed buildings, making way for their demolition, but the buildings’ owners have appealed to the Council of State to save their properties. In a nod to pressure from local residents as well as community and political organizations, the Culture Ministry has suggested it may try to keep the facades and reconstruct the houses in a nearby location.

The ancient citadel is clearly visible from the purpose-built Parthenon Gallery on the skewed top floor, a rectangular “glass box” that will showcase the famous, albeit incomplete, marble frieze at eye-level, replicating the marbles’ exact size and orientation. But the view to the Parthenon is partly obstructed from the restaurant and adjacent balcony on the first level.

“As far as I know, the whole point of the museum’s design was to showcase the view of the Acropolis from the hall housing the Parthenon sculptures,” said Dragonas, the Patras University assistant professor, referring to the museum’s chief treasure. “This view is in no way obstructed by the two buildings, as the Parthenon sculptures have been placed on the highest level of the building.”

“The problem has to do with the view of the Acropolis from the museum’s restaurant, which is lower down, on the first floor. So, the question is: Is it worth demolishing two beautiful historical buildings for a restaurant view? In my opinion, the only answer is ‘no,’” said Dragonas.

Tschumi has said that he designed the building without knowing for sure whether the buildings would stay or not. “I don’t think that there was any discussion whether they would be demolished. That was not mentioned in our discussion, one way or another,” he told Athens Plus in an interview last summer.

“The museum was designed having in mind that all the buildings around the museum could have remained and you would never have to see them,” Tschumi said. “But it would not necessarily be good for the museum to keep everything.”

A series of quotes on the Parthenon Marbles & the New Acropolis Museum:

‘The greatest weakness in the Greeks’ case to retrieve the marbles from Britain was always the lack of a suitable museum. Tschumi’s museum is the strongest card the Greeks have yet played’
Stephen Phillips

‘Athens hasn’t seen a thunderbolt like this since Athena last threw one. Will it carry out its assigned task, to summon the Elgins back? For once the cliche works so well it really can’t be avoided. If you build it, will they come?’
Richard Lacayo

‘The building of the new Acropolis Museum finally gives [Greeks] the physical authority to buttress an argument that has too often relied on shrill sentimentalism and unsubtle jingoism’
Peter Aspden

‘A building that is both an enlightening meditation on the Parthenon and a mesmerizing work in its own right. I can’t remember seeing a design that is so eloquent about another work of architecture’
Nicolai Ouroussoff

‘Its breathtaking design, with natural light flooding every corner, is a huge achievement in itself. And with every visitor, I am sure, another voice will be raised to call on London to restore the unity of this astonishing piece of art’
Jonathan Glancey

‘If the Mona Lisa had been sawed in two during the Napoleonic Wars and the separated halves had been acquired by different museums, would there not be a general wish to see what they might look like if reunited?’
Christopher Hitchens

‘It ought to be borne in mind that it is not dignified in a great nation to reap profit from halftruths and half-rights; honesty is the best policy – and honesty in the case of the Elgin marbles means restitution’
C.P. Cavafy