The Acropolis and Its New Museum

By James, N. | Antiquity, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Acropolis and Its New Museum

James, N., Antiquity

The new Acropolis Museum was opened in June 2009 with worldwide fanfare. For this was for the Athenian acropolis--the Acropolis. After two lower galleries, visitors reach the top floor and find what is now the world's most exciting coup of archaeological presentation--a sudden view of the Parthenon. We stand there in the middle of a gallery that sets out the temple's sculpted pediments, metopes and friezes according to the original plan. They are hung on a framework that marches the Parthenon's colonnades at the same orientation and scale and on the same plan as the great temple itself (Figure 1); so that, walking along the gallery, we can imagine ourselves in the temple by just looking out at it on the Acropolis.

The old museum on the Acropolis itself has now been closed. The new museum is down on Makryianni Street, to the other side of the Theatre of Dionysos. With its specially calculated view, can it help us to understand or comprehend the Acropolis and, in particular, the Parthenon? Or should visitors just be allowed to make of the Acropolis whatever they will? And now too--as, of course, so many are asking--has the case for returning the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum become incontestable?



The present observations are based on two visits to Athens. The first was in 1987, when I conducted an investigation of visitor management in Greece, including enquiries about plans for the Acropolis (James 1987). The second was a fornight after the new museum opened.

On the Acropolis

How could the museum help visitors to make sense of the site? The Acropolis Conservation Committee has pondered that since soon after it was set up in 1975. It is an issue about relative priority among three interdependent principles (compare Carman 2002: 17-9): display of the Parthenon's sculptures as 'art' or 'heritage' and as an archaeological resource, a contemporary cultural asset; interpretation, what the Acropolis was for in ancient times, and what the sculptures show and meant; and preservation, how to manage the site now as both an archaeological resource and a visitor attraction.

The function of interpretation has long been jeopardised by crowding on the site. In order to understand the problem, let us note the principal features and then assess the spaces for visitors' circulation before considering whether a museum could help to alleviate the problem. See Figure 2.

The main monuments on the Acropolis are the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike. The Propylaea is retained as the entry to the site, and most visitors approach the Propylaea through the Beule Gate. The Temple of Athena Nike has long been completely inaccessible amidst the work of preservation. The Parthenon has been out of bounds for many years too, for the same reason. The Erechtheion is cordoned off as well but we are permitted right up to its walls except on the south side, which is now used for storing architectural fragments. Conservators' workshops occupy a wide apron south of the Parthenon; and a large area has been reserved between the Erechtheion and the Propylaea for the works of restoration on the latter. Two other yards have been set aside for storing architectural fragments, east and west of the Parthenon. The old museum takes up much of the south-eastern corner of the site; and a sizeable fringe of the north-eastern side is closed off too. Some of the spaces out of bounds are the sites of earlier structures. The old temple of Athena occupied the ground south of the Erechtheion. Deliberately or not, there are no signs to tell visitors about the earlier shrines.

Out of an earnest concern to offer them a sense of how the ancient Athenians used the site, the Conservation Committee has long insisted that visitors should enter the Acropolis along the last part of the Panathenaic procession's route, through the Propylaea; and, by the same token, there was once a proposal to admit them along a path through the Parthenon once the present protracted works of restoration have finished. …

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