Greece's New Acropolis Museum

The multimillion-dollar New Acropolis Museum looks to both educate and persuade

By: By Jim Calio

The New Acropolis Museum. // (C) 2010 Throughnothing

The New Acropolis Museum. // (C) 2010 Throughnothing

The first time I went to Athens, I saw a donkey getting drunk. I was sitting in a taverna in the Plaka, looking up at the Parthenon, when I noticed a commotion at the next taverna over. I saw a few men pouring beer into a hapless donkey, which was staggering from table to table. It somehow made my first trip to Athens all the more memorable.

Today, that taverna once filled with trouble-makers is gone, as is most of the neighborhood. In its place is the gleaming glass and concrete New Acropolis Museum, which also has a great view of the Acropolis towering above.

The $200 million, 226,000-square-foot building is modern Greece’s architectural claim to world-class greatness and also a plea to the rest of the world to bring back the Elgin marbles, which have been sitting in the British Museum since 1816 and have been the subject of diplomatic and legal wrangling for years.

The new museum was scheduled to be completed in time for the 2004 Olympics but dozens of legal battles — many having to do with some 25 buildings that were demolished to make room for it — delayed the process for years.

Some local tour companies now include the New Acropolis Museum on their Athens itineraries.

“We’ve changed our tours to include an additional hour for it,” said Christos Stergiou, president of Athens-based TrueGreece, “although obviously you can’t see it all in just an hour.”

Stergiou also added that the recent economic unrest in Greece has not caused any disruption in his bookings, which are up 20 percent this year.

The Elgin marbles, part of the frieze on the Parthenon, were taken from Athens by Lord Elgin when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Ever since, there has been a war of words between the Greek and British governments over the rightful ownership of the 2,500-year-old panels. The Greeks claim that the artifacts belong where they originated, in Greece; the British claim that the Elgin marbles were legally acquired and can be better displayed in the British Museum.

However, part of the British argument may be losing some currency, given the spectacular architecture of Athens’ new museum, which was designed by New York architect Bernard Tschumi.

The museum has five floors (two underground) which provide space for 4,000 artifacts — 10 times the number displayed in the old Acropolis museum, which was built in 1874 and is tucked in a small corner of the Acropolis itself.

The first level has a glass floor where visitors can gaze down on what remains of a Christian settlement from the 7th to the 12th centuries, an archaeological treasure in itself that was unearthed during the construction of the new museum.

The second floor is reached by a glass ramp, which mirrors the slope of the Acropolis. There is a wonderful collection of freestanding objects from Greece’s archaic and classical period, and statues mill about as if in some ancient agora.

But the third floor is the piece de resistance and, perhaps, the country’s best argument for returning the Elgin marbles. The floor is rotated 23 degrees off the axis of the lower floors, so it is parallel to the Parthenon itself. In effect, it points to the Parthenon atop the Acropolis.

What is striking about the various parts of the museum is what’s missing. In the case of the top floor, the frieze of the Parthenon is recreated, with those parts that have been recovered mixed in with plaster casts of those objects still at the British Museum. The effect is dramatic — the honey-colored marble of the old pieces contrasts sharply and pointedly with the white plaster.

Greece now has only 36 of the original 115 panels from the Parthenon frieze. When complete, they depict a procession in honor of the goddess Athena.

Just before the museum opened in 2009, the British government offered to loan the Elgin marbles to the New Acropolis Museum for three months, but only if the Greek government acknowledged that they still belonged to the British. Needless to say, the Greek authorities turned down the offer.

But there seems to be building international pressure to return the Elgin marbles, especially now that the museum that would house them is acknowledged as world class. In recent years, at least 25 artifacts have been returned to Greece, including pieces of the Parthenon frieze that were displayed for decades at museums in Italy, Germany and the Vatican.

Perhaps, Britain will be next in line.

The New Acropolis Museum