ATHENS — For advocates of the repatriation of marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century and long housed at the British Museum in London, the new Acropolis Museum is proof — at last — that Greece has a safe place to display the hotly contested artworks.
For Athenians who live and work near the Acropolis, the looming modern structure at the southeastern base of the hill is a mixed blessing. The $200-million, 226,000-square-foot museum has transformed the area of Makrygianni, boosting property values while dwarfing other buildings in the neighborhood.
Dimitrios Pandermalis, a classical archaeologist who presided over the building's construction and is now president of the museum, is acutely aware of all this. But for him, the gleaming edifice is a dream come true or at least partly so.
With 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, 10 times that of its predecessor, the museum presents layer upon layer of Acropolis history, from about 1000 BC to AD 700. Opened in June, it welcomed its millionth visitor in late October and continues to pack in about 10,000 people a day.
"What we miss in many museums with pieces from different origins is that we don't know precisely where many of them came from," Pandermalis says. "It's not enough to say that something is from Greece. We need to know if it's from northern or southern Greece or from Athens and which side of Athens. Here, all the exhibits are related to the Acropolis. Inscriptions on the bases of the statues help us connect the pieces to great personalities of politics and leading artists of the time."
A soft-spoken, grandfatherly scholar, Pandermalis wears an apricot-colored tie sprinkled with whimsical giraffes and elephants. But he works in an austere, high-ceilinged room on the second floor of a museum-adjacent neoclassical building, a former military hospital that houses Ministry of Culture offices. On his desk, a replica head of a classical sculpture jauntily crowned by a white hard hat speaks of construction challenges.
"I've had a turbulent life," says Pandermalis, part of the Greek Parliament in 2000, when he agreed to head the building commission. Professor emeritus of classical archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, he has ended a long teaching career but still directs the university's archaeological excavation at the foot of Mt. Olympus.
"The idea of a new Acropolis Museum started more than 30 years ago," he says. "The first architectural competition was held in 1976. I got involved in 2000 and started the fourth competition. A major problem was the site. Should it be around the Acropolis or at a distance from it or hidden underground? Another difficulty is that the site around the Acropolis is full of antiquities.
"It wasn't easy to hope for a new museum," he says. "But it was really necessary. The old museum on the hill was not appropriate for the finds. We have masterpieces, very precious pieces, and we did not have space to present them."
War, earthquakes and ravages of time, weather and pollution have seriously damaged the historic structures on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon. Today, cranes and scaffolding are part of the landscape in an ongoing effort to stabilize and restore crumblings buildings..
The new showcase, designed by Bernard Tschumi Architects of New York and Paris, stands on concrete pylons above an excavation of an urban settlement dating from archaic to early Christian Athens. Discovered during construction, the site is expected to open to the public this year. For now, parts of it are visible in open pits and see-through panels in walkways. Inside the building, visitors see the excavation through the glass floor of a central ramp as they ascend to a vast, airy gallery of sculpture from the 7th to the early 5th century BC.
Depictions of violent struggles among animals, gods and demons in the Archaic Gallery once adorned triangular pediments under temple roofs. Many free-standing objects mingling with a forest of columns were made as votive offerings, dedicated to the gods as tokens of piety, thanks for blessings or emblems of achievement and status. Towering marble statues of young women bearing gifts were donated to a temple by wealthy citizens.
On the top floor is the Parthenon Gallery, a jaw-dropping, glass-encased rectangular space that has been shifted 23 degrees from the lower part of the building to align it with the ancient temple. Visitors have a direct view of the Parthenon itself while perusing its decorative scheme of carved marble reconstructed in the gallery. The sculptures are attributed to Phidias, who collaborated with his pupils Agorakritos, Alkamenes and other artists.
The pediments depict the birth of Athena and her victory over Poseidon. A bas-relief frieze that wrapped around the building portrays a 12-day festival populated by 360 figures and more than 250 animals. Ninety-two high relief panels, called metopes, illustrate battle scenes. About half the components are original marbles that have remained in Greece. Some pieces were lost in a 1687 explosion. The rest are plaster casts, mostly of pieces at the British Museum.
"I like very much that the physical environment is involved in the presentation of the exhibits," Pandermalis says. "People need to be conscious of cultural and historical layers to arrive at their sources. We have the sources. We are very proud of that."
But it's no accident that the Parthenon Gallery has heated up the long-simmering debate about the rightful home of the marbles taken to London by a Scottish diplomat known as Lord Elgin during a period of Ottoman Turkish rule and purchased by the British government in 1816 for 35,000 pounds sterling (more than $3 million today).
"The new museum explains the problem to the public," Pandermalis says. "It's a new base for the discussion. A full interpretation of the whole architecture is necessary to get an idea about the size, richness and quality of the sculpture. It was the glory of Athens in the classical period.
"We do not demand the return of every antiquity to the country of origin. For this one monument that is so important for the cultural history of the world, we have to find the solution to reunify all the original fragments. When you have the head of a statue and the body is 4,000 kilometers away, it's a problem."
The British show no sign of relinquishing the marbles in their possession. But instead of belaboring the point, Pandermalis shares "special views" at the museum, such as a quiet spot overlooking the Archaic Gallery, where visitors come face to face with an astonishing array of statues made thousands of years ago, some with traces of bright pigment. Another favorite place provides a vantage point above a group of female statues known as caryatids made to support a porch roof on the Erechtheion, a temple built in the early 5th century BC.
"Look at that, how people move," he says. "There's an overlay of space and movement, also of time. History becomes power, moving power."