The Acropolis Museum was opened to the public in 2009, designed to hold the artifacts found on the Acropolis site over recent centuries. The first museum to house exhibits from the Acropolis was built in 1874 but its capacity couldn’t cope with the amount of material gathered by archaeologists over the next century. A competition was held to design the new Museum which had to be able to deal with a lot of complex, competing issues. One major issue was that such a museum had to be able to answer the accusation by British officials who claimed that one of the reasons the Parthenon marbles couldn’t be restored to Greece was because they didn’t have a suitable facility to care for these precious mementos of Greece’s Classical Age. One of the other issues was the idea of building a modern Museum next to the Acropolis, in fact building over an area that was already an archaeological area involving roadside houses and workshops from the Byzantine and classical era. One design feature became compulsory for the new Museum; it had to be elevated above ground with glass floors to reveal the excavations below.
The Acropolis Museum is like most other modern world museums with facilities like an amphitheatre, a theatre and spaces for temporary exhibitions. Of course, the main use of this building is to house the permanent exhibitions of materials discovered on the Acropolis. These displays are set out in five separate galleries.
- The Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis
- The Archaic Acropolis Gallery
- The Parthenon Gallery
- Propylaia, Athena Nike, Erechtheion
- From the 5th c. BC to the 5th c. AD
For those who want a complete account of the exhibitions, the Museum itself has an excellent website that gives plenty of specific information about all the exhibits. It can be found at http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en. In this short article I am just going to touch on a few examples of what is to be found in this great museum.
One of the early displays you encounter in the Museum are some 3D models of various stages in the construction/destruction on the Acropolis. The first image below on the left depicts a stage in the Mycenean period when defensive walls were built on the Acropolis. The second image represents the period after 480 BCE after the Persians had burnt down the ‘old’ Temple on the Acropolis.
The third image below captures the period in the 3rd century CE when most of the buildings on the Acropolis were standing as well as showing the Odeon and the Theatre of Dionysus still functioning. The fourth image is from around 1500CE when many of the classical buildings have gone and the Parthenon had long been converted into a Christian Church.
It is on the third floor of the Acropolis Museum that is the most important exhibition for me… the Parthenon Gallery. It has four sections …
- The Frieze (75 metres removed by Elgin)
- The Metopes (15 of 92 metopes removed by Elgin
- The Monument
- The Pediments (17 figures from the Pediments taken by Elgin)
The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum account for more than a half of what remains of the sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon.
The display on the third floor has the same dimensions as the original Parthenon so the visitor can walk around the exhibits as if they were at the roof line of the monument. In the forefront on a bench display are the figures from the Pediment, the triangular feature at the peak of the front and back of the Parthenon. The displays illustrate the damage that was already made to these figures by the start of the 19th century. The metopes are at the back of the pediment, higher up towards the ceiling of the room. The frieze is in the background on the back wall of the display. There are two types of sculptures displayed. The older artifacts of stone are the original figures removed from the Parthenon for preservation. The missing figures that were removed by Lord Elgin are plaster copies made as long ago as 1846. The image below (from http://www.greece-is.com/) will give you some insight into where each particular type of marble sculpture was placed on the Parthenon.
The picture below illustrates the east side of the third-floor exhibition showing the relationship between the three types of sculpture. What is left of the sculptures of the Pediment can be seen to pose quite the jig saw puzzle in determining the missing features of the sculptures.
The East Pediment is poorly known but the image here is a proposed reconstruction of some of the sculptures that deals with the birth of Athena. It is believed that many of the missing pieces of this pediment disappeared when the Parthenon was being converted to a Christian Church back in the 7/8th century.
The image below is a proposed reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon. It illustrates the myth about the quarrel between Athena and Poseidon for Athens. Athena’s gift is the olive tree.
The image below shows the actual pieces that have survived of the West pediment.
The metotopes were originally 92 square carved plaques set above the columns of the Parthenon. They were carved in the 440s BCE and have been unsurprisingly very damaged over the last two and a half thousand years. If the transformation of the monument into a Christian Church didn’t do enough damage to these features, the powder magazine inside the Parthenon certainly completed the damage when it blew up in 1687. Each side of the Parthenon has a theme of battles between Athens and its various neighbours.
Of the original 160 metres of the frieze, only about 80% has survived the millennia and the majority of the remainder are held in the British Museum. The examples of two sections of the frieze in the Acropolis Museum above illustrate one plaster cast from the Elgin collection and one original section from the Parthenon. There was no written account of the meaning of the figures in the frieze handed down from antiquity but the current accepted interpretation is that it depicts the Greater Panathenaic procession held every four years in Athens.
The last object that I would like to highlight from the Acropolis Museum is the beautiful piece that original stood upon the peak of the Parthenon. It is an architectural ornament called the acroterion and its original height is calculated to be close to four metres. The original fragments of the acroterion from the Parthenon can be seen in the image here indicated by their orange colour… clearly not much remains of the original artifact.
Below is a reconstruction of the Parthenon with the original colours being used. The acroterion can be seen in place.