A lifelong vision, a bet that was finally won, a political pledge, a cultural duty, but above all “the need and duty of a Nation towards its legacy,” the New Acropolis Museum that houses invaluable finds dating from the 4th Millennium BC to the 5th century AD found on the Sacred Hill of the Acropolis has finally come into being.
A Modern Museum Is Born
Squeezed between modern buildings and an imposing building constructed by Bavarian architect Wilhelm von Weiler, a few metres away from the Acropolis entrance and the Ancient Theatre of Dionysos, the New Acropolis Museum, built on pedestrian walkway of Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, looks like hanging between the past and the present of Athens.
Designed by Bernard Tschumi and Mihalis Fotiades, the new Acropolis Museum has a total area of 25,000 square meters, with exhibition space of over 14,000 square meters. Made of stainless steel, glass, marble and concrete, materials typical of the Athenian environment, the new museum has a direct view of the Acropolis, while it keeps its “distances” from the block of flats and the rest buildings on Makrygiannis Street. It is ten times more than that of the old museum on the Hill of the Acropolis, where, where due to lack of space, “the exhibits were piled up or kept in storerooms,” stressed Fotiades.
With bioclimatic planning, which gives ideal lighting and heating conditions, and designed to absorb noises and cemented enough to survive earthquakes measuring up to 10.0 on the Richter scale, the New Museum offers all the amenities expected in an international museum of the 21st century.
“Never did we try to give the building an ancient-Greek or neo-classical touch, because our goal was to keep it anonymous, as a shell embracing the universals features of our civilization,” explained the leading architect.
Founded on the remains of ancient houses and workshops stretching on the south slopes of the Acropolis and were surfaced thanks to excavations, the new museum looks like hanging above an ancient Athenian quarter.
The Odyssey of the New Acropolis Museum
The creation of the New Acropolis Museum was the brainchild of the late Constantine Karamanlis and Melina Merkouri, who was the first to suggest that the Elgin Marbles be renamed ‘The Parthenon Marbles.’
It took three decades and countless adventures before authorities decide on the place to host it and bring it to life. Dozens of appeals were submitted to the State Council from the very first day the excavation started unearthing the area’s treasures, and dozens of archaeologists and political engineers took legal actions. Furthermore, there were three tenders that yielded no results until 2000, when architects Bernard Tschumi and Mihalis Fotiades won the fourth one. 33 years of political disputes, fruitless tenders, bankruptcies of construction companies, lawsuits and appeals filed to the State Council preceded the founding of the new museum. In specifically, two tenders took place between 1976 and 1979, however, they fell flat. In 1989, then Culture Minister Melina Merkouri held a third tender, which was won by two Italian architects. However, Greek architects filed appeals and the tender was canceled.
After Melina Merkouri’s death in 1994, the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum was founded under the chairmanship of archaeologist Dimitrios Pantermalis. Three years later, excavation in the area chosen to host the new museum surfaced the remains of an ancient Athenian quarter.
Some years later, in 1999, the finds were viewed as listed, while the residents of the buildings that were going to be expropriated resorted to the State Council.
In 2000 a new tender takes place and the first prize is awarded to architects Bernard Tschumi and Mihalis Fotiades.
Three years later, however, the State Council ruled to have construction works frozen, following a new appeal.
During the 2004 Olympic Games, a lawsuit filed by Conservative deputy Petros Tatoulis, top-ranking members of the Archaeological Service, as well as leading Greek and foreign scientists were charged with breach of duty and destruction of antiquities.
However, in March 2004, when Tatoulis was appointed Culture Minister, the intentions of the Karamanlis administration were to speed up the construction works of the New Museum.
A Dream Comes True
Thus, 33 years after Constantine Karamanlis’ inspirational decision on the construction of a new museum, and 27 years after Melina Merkouri’s initiative a life-long dream is coming true.
Credit should also be given to archaeologist Dimitris Pantermalis, the person who turned the vision into reality, the impossible into the possible. But how did he make it? Professor Dimitris Pantermalis, despite the political, social, architectural and archaeological difficulties, never lost his courage and helped Melina’s dream come into being. “The museum has been a major part of my life. I devoted the last phase of my career to it and this journey offered my unique experiences,” said Pantermalis.
Dimitris Pantermalis took over the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, which was founded after Melina’s death in 1994. Professor of Archaeology at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, he had been leading excavations in northern Greece since 1973.
The Exhibits and the Surprises of the Museum
The Parthenon sculptures and the copies of those located in the British Museum, the 130 metres of the frieze, the pediments, the antiquities of the Holly Rock of the Acropolis, the emblem of goddess Athena, Karyatides are what visitors will have the chance to enjoy during the opening ceremony of the museum.
The reasoning behind the exhibition, explained Mr Pantermalis, is to give the visitors the feeling they are walking through the place to realize the place where the excavations and the artifacts lie. “It takes three hours to get an overall view of the exhibition,” added Pantermalis.
The exhibition is divided into five theme galleries, with one of them being the excavation itself that is expected to open to the public in a year’s time. The about 4000 finds of the New Museum can be found at the gallery of The Acropolis Slopes, shortly before the main galleries, the gallery of the Acropolis during the Archaic Period (where life-size statues and horse riders are overwhelmed by the daytime light reflected on the details of the statues), and the gallery of the Parthenon, where the metopes, the frieze and the pediments of the ancient temple are presented before the visitors eye in full swing.
The biggest surprise, though, in store for the visitors, is a sawed stone, bearing witness to Elgin’s stealing. Under the Parthenon frieze, half of its stones kept in the British Museum, there is a bare marble with no inscription on. It was sawed off in 1806 by Elgin and “we were left with the rest,” noted Pantermalis. “We have several similar stone to remind us of the stealing.”
Despite all these, the New Acropolis Museum is “the best possible environment to host the masterpieces of antiquity’s most precious place,” commented professor Dimitris Pantermalis. However, the vision of Constantine Karamanlis and Melina Merkouri for a “house” to host the united Parthenon Marbles remains a vision. The “house” was built and it is about to open its gates. The sculptures, however, remain in the British Museum. This is a bet that has not yet been won.
From 21 to 23 June, visitors can book tickets through the e-ticketing system. Touring will be taking place in three time zones, at 9am, 11am and 6pm, with 250 people being allowed to visit the museum’s premises in each time zone.
Prices will stand at 1 euro throughout 2009, while they will not exceed 5 euros in 2010. For more information on the Museum, as well as the ticket service, visit the Museum’s website: http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/