Gems of Ancient Greek civilisation receive modern treatment, with crowd-pulling results
by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA
A class of school-children are sitting on the floor. They are silent, attentively listening to their teacher. Their eyes are fixed on the long marble frieze in front of them. On its white surface, a solemn procession of men and women, of riders and kids, head towards an unknown destination. The figures are 2,400 years old, yet they look as alive as the schoolchildren watching them.
Sitting a few metres away, Dimitrios Pandermalis, head of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, smiles. "In summer we have mostly foreigners, but during winter most of the visitors are Greek. Schoolchildren, especially. I like them, they make the place alive," says Pandermalis. Behind him, through the thick glass wall, looms the museum's raison d'être – the real Acropolis.
The historical hill in the heart of Athens is one of the few places which embody a crucial stage in the development of Western civilisation. In the 6th-5th centuries BC it was in the eye of the hurricane now called Classical Antiquity; a time when, within decades, the foundations of philosophy, science, mathematics, art, literature, architecture and politics were being laid. The Acropolis is the showpiece of this civilisation. The Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Propylaea are examples of ground-breaking design, decorated with stunning sculpture, united to justify a novel and brave idea: that man is the measure of all things.
In the centuries after Antiquity, the treasures, buildings and sculptures on the Acropolis were largely destroyed, most famously during a Venetian attack in 1678, or taken away by Western collectors, like Lord Elgin. In spite of it all, the Acropolis remained a place of immense significance, and archaeological research in the 19th-20th centuries brought back thousands of artefacts which had accumulated on the hill over the millennia of human occupation.
For decades, only a tiny part of the finds could be exhibited, as the halls of the museum on the Acropolis itself were too small. Most of the artefacts were either locked in store rooms, or loaned to other museums. From the 1970s, there were three attempts to create a proper museum, but all failed.
In 2000, Professor of Archaeology Dimitrios Pandermalis took over the running of the museum and immediately started work on the creation of a new one. "It was a complicated process. For many years there was public argument and resistance," he recalls. Indeed, almost every aspect of the project was criticised – from the decision to demolish two listed houses to open up space for the new museum to its avantgarde architecture.
Designed by New York-based Bernard Tschumi, the new museum is all concrete, straight lines and glass. "There were people who wanted a museum in the Classical style," professor Pandermalis says. "But we said: 'OK, we already have the original there, why build an imitation?' We thought it would be more honest for the museum to represent our own era. And people like it. Especially the younger folk."
The museum opened in 2009. "Every part of it recreates, symbolically, an aspect of Athens and the Acropolis history," professor Pandermalis explains. The museum is more than just an exhibition space – it is a bridge to the past. Under the glass floor of the ground level are the streets and the houses of the ancient inhabitants of Athens. The long ramp leading up is packed with everyday and religious artefacts, recreating life around the Acropolis.
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