Due to the combined effects of my being sick for two days while in Athens (stomach trouble – DON’T ask) and the museum guards at the major museums and sights being on strike for four days out of six (not kidding), I didn’t visit as many of the city’s museums as I would have liked. I was particularly frustrated by my failure to see the much lauded Byzantine museum which was closed (striking) each of the three times I walked half an hour from my hostel to try to see it. Each time there was no announcement of future closures, just a note pinned to the closed gate saying that it would be closed on that date. I never did get in even though I stayed an extra day in the city to try.
I did, however, visit the two contrasting but equally excellent archaeology museums. The first, the National Archaeological Museum is one of the best collections of Greek antiquities in the world and looks it. Its housed in a traditional museum style – the Neoclassical par excellence. Artifacts are arranged in galleries which proceed in a linear pattern arranged around two internal courtyards. The collection is stunning – pieces both unusual and typical and some in amazing conditions. I like traditional museums so I enjoyed wandering the galleries and stooping close to read the small English labels next to interesting pieces. The most dramatic area was the collection recently hauled up from the bottom of the Mediterranean – an ancient shipwreck. They found piles of coins, some AMAZING bronze statues and a mysterious mechanical clock which they believe tracked lunar cycles. The stone statues are strangely misshapen – eroded away where they were exposed to sea water but preserved where they lay against the sandy floor.
The New Acropolis Museum is the modern answer to the old museum. The site is complicated – with an archaeological excavation under the site (the building rides above it on huge columns with a glass floor to allow views of the dig below) and several shifting orientations to allow access around existing buildings and then square off to the acropolis on the top floor. It is also Architecture with a capitol A and knows it. Architect Bernard Tschumi won the AIA Institute Honor Award for the building in 2011 and it really is a delightful space. Its airy and light with clear circulation prepared to handle the crowds that file through every day in summer. On the day I visited it was relatively quiet (hooray). I would love to have recorded more of its excellent collection but photographs aren’t allowed on the lower two floors so I contented myself with a few sneaked snaps (just of the architecture, I told myself) and drank it in with my eyes. The main museum floor holds a number of the finds from the Acropolis itself and there are some really beautiful statues, friezes and pottery fragments. I wished that there were some way to display and protect those items in situ because neither they nor the site really feel complete when separated.
The top floor was designed (rather hopefully) to hold the four sided Parthenon frieze (otherwise, and quite unfairly, known as the Elgin Marbles). Thus far it does not as the British Museum has flatly refused to return them. Their manifold former reasons for keeping them – that Greece had nowhere to properly protect and display them, that there were more people who could visit them in Britain, that Athens was too small a backwater city – have dropped away one by one but still they hang tight. Greece offered to replace them with a rotating supply of some of its best antiquities but the BM was having none of it. I think they’re afraid if they cave on this point they’ll have no more excuse to keep any of their vast looted hoard from the places whence it originally came.
For those who don’t know, the Elgin Marbles, housed at the British Museum, are the original parthenon frieze – a double level of detailed and beautiful sculptured panels depicting historical and mythical scenes of Athenian triumph. They were attached to the Parthenon and doing about as well or better than most other ancient monuments (slightly damaged and not particularly valued) up until 1800. At that point they came to the attention of one Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin and Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty in Greece. He took an interest in them, planning to draw and take plaster casts to document them properly but then he just plain took them – cutting them off the building and shipping them back to England at his own expense and as his own personal property. The project ended up bankrupting him and he was dragging them around showing them for money in barns and empty warehouse buildings for some time before the British Government decided the story was an embarrassment and retroactively rubber-stamped the theft by purchasing them from him and displaying them at the British Museum. Naturally I’m paraphrasing this story – there are a number of perspectives and Elgin may (or may not) have obtained some permission to excavate or at least enter the site from the Turkish Government (who probably didn’t care all that much about ancient Greek history). Elgin may have had the greater glory of archaeology in his heart when he took these interesting relics back to his home land and perceived center of the cultural universe. Still I’m inclined not to give him the benefit of the doubt. It would be nice if the BM would make some amends by bringing this important part of the Parthenon … back to the Parthenon.