Image by Vangelis Koronakis Lonely Planet
This dazzling museum at the foot of the Acropolis' southern slope showcases its surviving treasures. The collection covers the Archaic period to the Roman one, but the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BC, considered the apotheosis of Greece's artistic achievement. The museum reveals layers of history: ruins are visible in its floor, and, through floor-to-ceiling windows, the Acropolis is always visible above. The surprisingly good-value restaurant has superb views; there’s also a fine museum shop.
Designed by US-based architect Bernard Tschumi with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, the €130-million museum opened in 2007, after decades of planning, to replace the small museum near the Parthenon.
One reason the museum took decades to realize is visible as you enter the museum grounds, where the glass floor reveals the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood. These were uncovered during construction and had to be preserved and integrated into a new building plan.
Finds from the slopes of the Acropolis are on display in the foyer gallery. The floor's slope emulates the climb up to the sacred hill, while allowing glimpses of the ruins below. Exhibits include painted vases and votive offerings from the sanctuaries where gods were worshipped, and more recent objects found in excavations of the settlement, including two clay statues of Nike at the entrance.
Bathed in natural light, the 1st-floor Archaic Gallery is a veritable forest of statues, mostly votive offerings to Athena. These include stunning examples of 6th-century kore – statues of young women in draped clothing and elaborate braids, usually carrying a pomegranate, wreath or bird. Most were recovered from a pit on the Acropolis, where the Athenians buried them after the Battle of Salamis. The 570 BC statue of a youth bearing a calf is one of the rare male statues found. There are also bronze figurines and artefacts from temples predating the Parthenon (destroyed by the Persians), including wonderful pedimental sculptures such as Hercules slaying the Lernaian Hydra and a lioness devouring a bull. Also on this floor are five Caryatids, the maiden columns that held up the Erechtheion (the sixth is in the British Museum).
The museum’s crowning glory is the top-floor Parthenon Gallery, a glass atrium housing the temple's 160m-long frieze. It's mounted as it once was, following the layout of the building, and you can stroll along, as though atop the columns, and examine the fragments at eye level. The frieze depicts the Panathenaic Procession, starting at the southwest corner of the temple, with two groups splitting off and meeting on the east side for the delivery of the peplos (shawl) to Athena. (To really understand the reliefs, see the film that is screened on this floor.) Interspersed between the golden-hued originals are stark-white plaster replicas of the missing pieces – the controversial Parthenon Marbles hacked off by Lord Elgin in 1801 and now held in the British Museum in London.
Also on this level are metopes and sculpture from the Parthenon, as well as a plaster replica of a giant floral akrotirion, a decorative element that once crowned the southern ridge of the pediment.