A new life for ancient history

The New Acropolis Museum in Athens brings together Greece's greatest treasures, writes David Whitley.

If ever something was on a hiding to nothing, it's the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. It cost €130 million ($222 million) to build, is designed to hold many of Greece's most important national treasures and is already being promoted as a tourism flagship.

Naturally, the critics had a field day before it was even opened. Some pointed to the cost, some to the museum's position at the foot of the Acropolis rather than on it, others to the fact that a Swiss architect – Bernard Tschumi – was employed rather than a Greek.

Tschumi, predictably, has taken most of the flak. His modernistic building hasn't won universal acclaim. There are none of the Doric columns that grace the Acropolis's centrepiece, the Parthenon, and a contemporary building by ancient Greece's key site was always going to be controversial.

It isn't the Doric columns that the New Acropolis Museum really misses, however – it's the subtle curves. Tschumi's museum looks a little clunky and blocky from the outside – it's all straight lines, glass and concrete. One suspects it may date very quickly. The phrase "large municipal library" springs to mind.

The interior is far more impressive. Tschumi has gone for a minimalist look, allowing the exhibits to do the talking. It's a light, spacious combination of steel pillars, glass walls and marble.

The sensation of ascending the Acropolis is re-created by themed collections over different levels. The sloping entrance hall takes visitors through the lower levels of the world's most famous hill, with artefacts from sanctuaries and temples dedicated to nymphs, heroes and lesser gods. The remains – such as a marble table used for funeral sacrifices – come with explanatory panels that cover everything from the relative popularity of cults to wedding customs.

The route through the galleries leads steadily upwards, past dioramas of the Acropolis from different eras. The museum becomes a highly impressive field of statues, busts and sculptures, all plucked from various temples and sanctuaries that once stood proud.

The museum also incorporates great views of the Acropolis but, let's face it, the Greeks haven't spent €130 million so people can look out on something they've probably already climbed up.

The New Acropolis Museum's golden crown comes at the top – it's what makes every cent spent worth it.

The Parthenon Gallery is a simulation of what is arguably the greatest work of architecture from the ancient world.

The outer walls are all glass, allowing for 360-degree views that include the Parthenon. It's built at a different angle from the rest of the building to make it precisely parallel to the Parthenon and the displays are to the same dimensions.

In the middle is a large-screen video presentation that explains the Parthenon's history and the meaning of the many works of art that adorned it. It uses state-of-the-art graphics to re-create what the building once was before it was afflicted by the ravages of time, fire and trophy hunters.

The real wow factor, however, is generated by the sculptures and carvings from the Parthenon. The roof is re-created in the same dimensions, with natural light shining upon it from the same angles. The intricacy of the stonework can be appreciated; the friezes depicting scenes from the Battle of Troy, mythical encounters and centaurs fighting Lapiths are displayed in order. All have been cleaned using laser technology.

Where the originals are missing – quite a few have been destroyed or are on display in the British Museum – plaster replicas are in their place. Diagrams and panels tell the stories.

The pediments are the most impressive, with the sculptures gradually decreasing in size from the centre to fit the slope of the roof. The pediments also highlight the museum's greatest weakness and what could be its greatest achievement.

The display looks so good yet many of the original major figures are in London. They were taken by Lord Elgin while Athens was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. Greece has made repeated calls for the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles to be returned.

The British response has largely been to stick fingers in ears and burble "la, la, la, can't hear you". One of the major cited reasons for not returning the marbles has been the lack of a suitable place to display them.

Athens now has the perfect pedestal and the British argument looks increasingly feeble. Hopefully the remnants of the Parthenon can be reunited before long. Until then, the New Acropolis Museum has instantly leapt into the company of the world's greatest museums.

See theacropolismuseum.gr. Admission is €1.

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