Located by the southeast slope of the Acropolis hill, the New Acropolis Museum was built to accommodate many artefacts that were uncovered during the successive excavations on the Acropolis, which significantly exceeded the capacity of the original Acropolis Museum, opened in 1876. Built over the ancient ruins and located only 1000 feet away from the Parthenon, the modern museum building stands on the ancient road that led up to the sacred rock in classical times. Exhibiting more than 4,250 objects from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece in an area over 14,000 square metres, the museum is consistently rated as one of the best museums in the world.
Framed by olive trees, propped up by concrete pillars and revealing the site’s archaeological excavation below, the museum providesthe visitors with a comprehensive picture of the story of life on the Athenian Acropolis and its surroundings, from pre-historic times till the final centuries of classical civilization.
Despite the original Acropolis Museum, which was opened in 1876, underwent a moderate expansion in the 1950s, the need for extra space to accommodate many new artefacts, uncovered following successive excavations, could not be overlooked for long. However, the architectural competition to design a new museum held in 1976, followed by another in 1979, failed to satisfy, mainly because the plots of land offered for the proposed constructions were deemed unsuitable. Finally, the third international competition held in 1989 with a choice of three possible sites, was won by the Italian architects, Manfredi Nicoletti and Lucio Passarell and after delays throughout the 1990s, work progressed to the stage of excavations for the foundations. But eventually, the work was stopped due to the presence of sensitive archaeological remains on the site, leading to the annulment of the competition, as it had no provision for the preservation of the ancient site.
The new plans were adjusted to construct the building elevated above the ground on pillars and the competition, opened only to the architectural practices by invitation, was won by Swiss-American architect, Bernard Tschumi. The museum was opened to the public on 20 June 2009, delayed due to the discovery of two layers of modest, private roadside houses and workshops, one from the early Byzantine era and another from the classical era, during the excavation.
Designed by Bernard Tschumi, with local Greek architect Michael Photiadis, the Acropolis Museum with its large glass panes is cleverly perched above Athens like a luminous box. Designed with spare horizontal lines and modelling the columns to mirror those of the Parthenon, the design also incorporated seismic technology in anticipation of the region’s frequent earthquakes. The use of various types of glass allows natural light to flood into the topfloor of the building, which filters through skylights into the archaic galleries and penetrates the core of the building, gently touching the archaeological excavation below the building, near the entrance. The glass floors allow the visitors to peer through transparent floor panels to view the artefacts beneath their feet.Glass walls also allow the exhibits to be viewed in natural light, as they would have been seen in ancient times.
The invaluable collections of the museum, uncovered during the excavations, are exhibited on the three levels of the building, while a fourth middle level houses the auxiliary spaces such as the museum shop, the café and the offices. The ground floor of the museum contains the artefacts from the slopes of Acropolis, which include everyday objects like cookery pots and vessels, providing an insight into the ancient Athenian way of life and the second floor contains the naturally-lighted Archaic gallery, displaying a wide range of statues, from Apollo to Athena and other exhibits found in the Acropolis from the 7th century BC up to the Persian wars that took place in 480/79 BC.The floor also contains the five Caryatids, five beautiful maidens, sculptured from Pentelic marble, wearing robes pinned on each shoulder with their braided hair on their back.Once they served as columns to hold up the roof of the southern porch of the Erechtheion, the most sacred part of the Acropolis.
However, the Acropolis Museum hits its peak with the Parthenon Gallery, located on the third floor. Designed on the same axis as the Parthenon so that it has the identical cardinal orientation, it has the same dimensions to display the entire frieze of the temple, exactly as it was in ancient times.
The three basic sculptural components of the Parthenon consist of the east and the west pediments, the metopes and the frieze. The east pediment, perched above the entrance of the temple, depicts the supernatural birth of the goddess Athena and the west depicts the mythological contest between Athena and Poseidon.
Arranged above head height, the 92 relief panels or metopes that were once part of the external colonnades of the temple, depict Greek mythology and legendary ancient battles. At the same time, a battle of a centaur versus man, which was one of the most recent panels to be removed from the Parthenon, is pictured in the metope below. However, the frieze, displayed behind the metopes, forming a continuous band around the walls of a rectangular space set inside the columns, is the most intricate element of the Parthenon.Placed 12 metres high, it is a continuous narrative carved in bas-relief, depicting the gods, humans and animals that made up the Great Panathenaia that occurred every four years to honour the goddess Athena. The glass panelling and elevation of the floor offers the visitors a mesmerising view of the ancient city of the Acropolis.
In addition to the excavation site featuring the remains of an ancient village, near the museum’s entrance, the museum is also equipped with an amphitheatre, virtual theatre and hall for temporary exhibitions.