The New Acropolis Museum: corporate kultura
- Posted June 25, 2009 by Stefan Fletcher in General. Viewed 5786 times
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If you’ve read this post [photoblog.com] and the one after it, you know I feel passionately about museums. If you’ve read this one [photoblog.com], 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.
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