The New Acropolis Museum: corporate kultura

by Stefan Fletcher June. 25, 2009 6741 views

If you’ve read this post [] and the one after it, you know I feel passionately about museums. If you’ve read this one [], you’ll also know that the winning bid for the new Acropolis museum has baffled, irritated and amused Athenians since 2000.

A museum is very much part of its environment because it tries to stand out from it – with grandeur or pomposity and even timelessness, perhaps. No town is complete without its own repository of memory and identity. That’s why we have them; that’s why they’re important. They are about the present, about the future. I have referred to them before as ‘culture morgues’ because people (teachers, citizens at large, even their own curators) think they are only about the past.

My interest began when I was six years old at my local museum, the Horniman in South-East London. This was in the early 1970s, when times were tough. I remember walking through dusty, ill-lit corridors full of wonders that led me to pursue an academic career as a cultural anthropologist. I’m sure it has changed, but I do recall that place as being very, very human.

And now for the Acropolis. This is it. Every building made by western Man consciously or subconsciously harks back to those marvels perched on top of the Acropolis, from Palladian palaces in Tuscany to colonial houses in the US to skyscrapers all over the world, and including your front door. If you’re going to design a museum facing The Buildings to house their treasures, it had better be special.

Unlike the British Museum, the Louvre or the Getty, the Acropolis Museum was designed to house indigenous artefacts, local items, not ones “borrowed” or bought and then displayed in another, richer country. But to say that the New Acropolis Museum was built to force the Brits to return the Parthenon Marbles would be simplistic. The new museum houses extraordinary artefacts from before, during and after the (re)construction of the Acropolis in the mid-5th century BCE. Yes, the new museum has a place for the returned marbles, but many, many more jewels. You can even walk around the Caryatids (see image 18) which, unless I’m mistaken, you can’t do in London.

Unfortunately, the modern building is an act of engineering bravery and artistic cowardice. It is cold, cynical and totally inhuman. Technically, it is astounding. Emotionally, it’s like walking into an expensive shopping centre or an airport.

The New Acropolis Museum and the Musée des Arts Premiers on Quai Branly in Paris were built around the same time and both cost in the $200-300 million mark. Quai Branly has three times the surface area of the Athenian museum and it’s beautiful with warm, earthy colours and tones, curving lines, extraordinary lights and a bewildering collection of primitive art. The New Acropolis museum is glass and concrete, very reminiscent of Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle airport: the one that collapsed.

The exterior is unprepossessing. Fair enough: anything looking up to the Acropolis can do only that – look up to it. But it does look like one of those 70s universities built after the ‘68 student riots. Were I feeling generous (which I’m not), I’d go as far as saying it resembles the corporate headquarters of a venture capital outfit.

Inside, once you get through the security check, you half expect to see flight numbers posted on a display board. What you do see is signs to the VIP Lounge; something guaranteed to make the diehard cultural socialist in me reach for the Molotov and a lighter. This is elitist and intimidating. For a start, you need to pre-book by credit card over the Internet to get in. Many Greeks, especially the older ones, do not possess either. Alternatively, you can queue to get a ticket (admittedly only €1) to come back later.

And be dwarfed by the concrete and glass – oh, somewhere behind the monumental bare concrete pillars you’ll find some beautiful exhibits cowering. Architect Bernard Tschumi claimed that natural light would create the setting for the exhibits. They’re drowned in its narcissistic focus on the setting. Absolutely nothing is done to bring these wonders alive. They fight a losing battle with the impressive interplay of volume and light. When I look at an exhibit, I want to concentrate on it, not the display case.

The Parthenon gallery on the top floor has a breath-taking vista set against which the Parthenon freeze is tastefully subdued. But that first image, the little old Greek lady walking down that huge, impressive, overpowering gallery, looking up in awe, really epitomises the lack of humanity in this museum.

I was so shocked that I went around asking other visitors what they thought. Their rather surprised response to my questions was uniformly positive. There must be something wrong with me. I intend to go back with my architect friend, so she can correct my misapprehension.

I am not a closet Prince Charles (my ears are much smaller, for a start); I don’t think modern architecture is wrong because it’s modern. I love what they did to the Louvre, what they’re doing to the Uffizi, the Quai Branly museum and, unlike His Royal Earness, what they did to the British Library.

Any ‘national’ museum is going to broadcast more than a hint of cultural imperialism. The New Acropolis Museum has grandeur, yes. The cold variety you’d expect from a feat of engineering. As for the rather endearing pomposity of other cultural showcases, inhumanity has taken its place. Timelessness? That’s for the future to decide.

Afterwards, sitting in a café 100 m away from it, I was served by a Greek girl whose face, with those circular eyes and that dramatic nose, could have come straight off the Red Figure vases shown in the museum. She told me she wasn’t planning on going. Perhaps one thing worse than a culture morgue is a cultural airport.

I hope you have the time, energy (and bandwidth) to enjoy these images. They are loosely divided as follows: the first 14 focus mostly on the building; the rest on exhibits.
I also hope you can stretch your attention span long enough to read the 980-odd words below.
But if you can't, the image above is the one that really matters to me. To find out why, read on…

Main entrance. Hmmmm

What it faces

Somewhere between the restaurant and the boutique there are exhibits. No, really…

Look! There's a Parthenon frieze somewhere.

The “Greek” Caryatids (the gap is for the one in the UK), looking slightly lost in Four Seasons Hotel, Athens. No, sorry, my mistake, the New Acropolis Museum.

Magnificent view from the Parthenon gallery

More of the same

This is a museum, right?

A new game for visitors: find the exhibit

No expense has been spared to make this new game as challenging as possible

Part of the architect's famous “light setting”. All we need now is, ahem, something to display.

Upstairs to the VIP lounge. No, this really is part of the same building, not the airport. (Note to fellow anarchists: it's all flame-resistant, so don't bother, however tempting it might be.)

Exhibits: one of the more unusual to greet visitors (if they can find it)

Something I've waited years to see again: the calf-bearer

Old friends from the old Acropolis museum

The centrepiece: somewhere in there are the Caryatids.

Up close and personal, but a little lost in their purpose-built setting. As you can see, you can walk behind them. The gap is for the one waiting to be returned from London

Just me trying to be “arty”, but I did like the interplay with the environment.

Whoever thought being a museum curator was a boring job has clearly never spent time glueing antique stone testicles back.

Another centrepiece. I'm afraid my emotion made me shake a little, so it's a tad blurry, even with PB resolution

Sorry about that. Clearly some work required in the marketing department.

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There are 15 comments , add yours!
Robert Moffat 11 years, 3 months ago

Fascinating! I commented on your other post before i found this one. Its made me very curious and anxious to visit for myself -certainly it looks like there is a lot of space compared to the BM! where things are all so close together - actually most cramped must go to the Soane Museum i guess. Anyway I digress - it looks interesting and will just have to go see! soon!!

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Edyta 11 years, 3 months ago

I read about this museum recently and your photos and comment provide some new perspective on the matter, thanks for sharing! I like photo #19 especially, a fave!

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
David Swatton 11 years, 3 months ago

I'm sorry, but what the f*** is a VIP lounge doing in a museum? Do you get free peanuts and a glass of juice?

You are spot on with #1... the poor old dear looks dwarfed by the edifice of the gallery rather than close to the exhibits (I'm sure I saw some exhibits in there somewhere after you pointed them out). It comes across as an academic exercise by a bunch of people sitting round a conference room debating "modernity" and who actually have no interest in museums or their purpose.

Btw, you'll have a long wait for the Elgin Marbles :-)

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Kecskemétiné Nelli 11 years, 3 months ago

Maybe the key is timelessness. Humans live in time. Timelessness is inhuman in a sense. We have to pay far too much for keeping up with (post)modern. I mean not the €1 but the alienation and materialization of artefacts.
Maybe I'm wrong. But I feel the same when I'm listening to a concert in the new Palace of Arts in Budapest. However, the concert has the advantage that you can enjoy it without opening your eyes. ;)

I like museums which have the atmosphere of a time travel, like the house of Tolstoy in Moscow. Nothing has changed there since he lived there. It was like visiting him but unfortunately I didn't find him at home. Now, that's human and personal but you can't do the same with the Acropolis because it has changed much.. only the illusion is left to us. Maybe this museum is the memento of illusion.

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Jarvo J 11 years, 3 months ago

Neat shots. You're right about the airport - you could park an Airbus in there.

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Piyali 11 years, 3 months ago

As I was reading this post I wished you would say the things you did and not pat the back of some boring yet technically flawless architecture. Sometimes I hate modernisation although I claim to be a techno savvy person. You have captured the essence wonderfully!!

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Marsha 11 years, 3 months ago

Well...that was a lot to take in, but much enjoyed the exceptional shots and your commentary. Since that's probably the closest I'll come to ever actually being there your post provided an excellent tour of the place. I do see your point....not much warmth there, but instead rather cold and sterile. Still....I'll have to say it looks impressive.

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Mikkal Noptek 11 years, 3 months ago

Interesting visit and great pictures

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Eric J H Joyce 11 years, 3 months ago

Well presented, photos and descriptions.

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Michael Sakowicz 11 years, 3 months ago

I feel as though I would have to 'tippie-toe' around the floor on some of theses [the glass floor.]

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Thebronzebow 11 years, 3 months ago

The building does seem to overwhelm the contents, exhibits and people alike. You've done an excellent job of capturing the both the feel of the building and the art (as usual) and I have to ask, based on your comments, if the exhibits are are well lit as your photos would seem to indicate. While I can see how line, form and surface create some beautiful views, some of the exhibits do seem inaccessible without binoculars or a good telephoto lens. If they where in situ in the Parthenon, would the angles and views be the same? Oh, and I love your "art piece". ;)

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Art Bee 11 years, 3 months ago

Very interesting and informative post! You are not afraid to voice your opinions, I like that! The photos are excellent by the way.

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Brian 11 years, 3 months ago

Very impressive job in photographing this building and exhibits. If I saw a majority of the building pictures without knowing what it was, I would have guessed a fancy hotel or airport setting too.
Without seeing it in person it does seem to lessen the impact and awe of these magnificent pieces.

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Taniamindi 11 years, 3 months ago

good set! very interesting!

11 years, 3 months ago Edited
Ricardo 11 years, 3 months ago

Very informative!
Also I'd like to say that the architecture of this building is awesome!
the last pic is very funny!
haha ^^

11 years, 3 months ago Edited