The Acropolis Museum opened to the public in 2009 and is home to thousands of artifacts excavated on the slopes of Athens’ Acropolis. Housing sculptural elements and objects from the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaea, and other nearby sanctuaries, the museum is a window into the lives of Archaic and Classical era Athenians. The museum was built to house the artifacts from the Acropolis, to tell the story of ancient Athens, and to serve as a beacon for the repatriation of objects being held in museums around the world, notably the British Museum but also the Vatican Museum, the Louvre, and others.
A Brief History of the Acropolis Museum
I. Before 1830
Even though the coming of Christianity under the Romans and, subsequently, Islam under the Ottomans had altered the function of the temples on the Acropolis, the sacred hill of Athens remained largely intact from its Classical origins. However, in the middle of the seventeenth century, the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the hill, suffered structural damage as the result of an explosion caused by a lightning bolt. A century later, the Ottomans began systematically dismantling the Temple of Athena Nike to harvest its building material in order to shore up defensive walls. This was done in an effort to keep the attacking Venetians out. In 1687, the Parthenon was severely damaged by an explosion of gunpowder that had been stored inside, as the Venetians sieged Athens’ Ottoman garrison that had taken refuge on the Acropolis.
However, the greatest loss of original structural and decorative elements from the Acropolis came in the early nineteenth century at the hands of the British. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin (often referred to as Lord Elgin), served as Britain’s ambassador to Constantinople at the time. Elgin allegedly procured a firmarn, a binding document from the Ottoman Sultan allowing Elgin to study and sketch the Acropolis’ many sculptures and structures. However, it stopped short of granting him permission to remove the objects. Regardless, Elgin and his team effectively stripped bare more than half of the Parthenon’s sculptures. Later, Elgin convinced the British Museum to purchase what he had removed from the Acropolis. The sculptures have remained in the museum ever since.
II. After 1830
Greece remained a subject of the Ottoman Empire until 1832, when it gained independence. While a museum was constructed to house the Acropolis’ treasures, the site soon proved insufficient for the cache discovered in subsequent excavations. A second building was built in 1888, and both facilities were refurbished after World War II. The Acropolis Museum continued to operate in these facilities until the new museum was ready. After breaking ground in January 2004, the Acropolis Museum opened to the public in June 2009.
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Designed by Bernard Tschumi Architects in New York, the museum is located 300 meters southeast of the Acropolis hill. The building’s design indicates a symbiotic collaboration between the architects and the archaeologists who worked to excavate the site and create a comprehensive and logical exhibition of artifacts. Much of the Museum is glass. Visitors can peer through the first level to see the ground from which museum artifacts were removed. It is also possible to look through enormous windows on the third floor to see the Parthenon itself, the design of which is paralleled in the display of original sculptures and friezes. The modern design stands in stark contrast to the detailed and intricate nature of the Classical sculptures, providing a blank canvas against which to truly appreciate the talents of Pheidias and his team of Classical sculptors.
The ground floor of the museum provides an in-depth look at the discoveries from the Acropolis slopes. The slopes included everything from private homes to musical venues to sanctuaries and were replete with evidence of Classical Athenian daily life. One group of fascinating objects now on display is a cache of spindle whorls. Spindle whorls were made of clay, stone, bone, or even metal and were used by girls and women to make cloth. Dozens of these objects were discovered at the Sanctuary of Nymphe, located on the south side of the Acropolis. Other important sanctuaries located at the Acropolis’ slopes were those of Asklepios and Dionysus. Dedications to Asklepios primarily took the form of votive statues, while Dionysus was generally honored by performances at the Theater of Dionysus. Artifacts from these locations are also on display on the ground floor. Also exhibited are a number of loutrophoroi, vessels that were used to carry water as part of purification rituals.
First (and Second) Floor
The museum’s first floor is a chronological narrative of the summit of the Rock, covering roughly 2500 years of history, starting with the second millennium BCE and ending with the fall of antiquity. This part of the museum traces the evolution of the Acropolis from a citadel to a sacred site. Many everyday objects, including seal stones, weights, and votive figurines, as well as bronze weapons, are included among the earliest objects. Later artifacts are more religious in nature and include a variety of vessels. On the first floor, visitors will find an extensive collection of Archaic sculpture. The museum’s restaurant is on the second floor.
The third floor is a glorious recreation of the Parthenon sculptures as they would have appeared at the time of Pericles and Phidias. The friezes are reassembled in the proper order to give the viewer a true sense of how the building would have appeared roughly 2400 years ago. The sections of the frieze that are lost are replaced by white plaster cast. However, the sections that reside in other museums are left blank, calling attention to the fact that a head or a body is missing. This is likely a political statement. Greece has consistently called for the repatriation of the objects that were taken by Lord Elgin and reside in the British Museum and other museums around the world.
1. Relief of a Small Temple and Portico, 450 BCE
Discovered in the Sanctuary of Asklepios, this relief shows the two buildings related to his worship. The scene shows Aslepios, his wife Epione, and daughter Hygeia as they receive a group of devotees. This sculpture is typical of the art of the Classical period. Created in the wake of Pericles’ rebuilding of the Acropolis, it reflects the architectural and sculptural elements inherent in Greek art of the time.
The museum also exhibits other similar reliefs, including the “house of Proclus”. As mentioned above, this scene is in direct relation to the presence of a Sanctuary of Asklepios on the Acropolis.
2. The “Peplos Kore”, 530 BCE
The “Peplos Kore” is an excellent example of the type of studies sculptors made of women. Clad in her peplos, this woman also shows a hairstyle typical of Archaic sculpture. Discovered in 1886, the body and the head were found separately and later reattached. The museum has conducted a spectrographic analysis, which reveals that the belt was blue and green to accent the blue chiton. The white peplos was apparently decorated with small animals and riders, which were also discovered through the aforementioned analysis. Further study revealed that a great deal of red and brown pigment was used on the hair and eyes.
Scholars believe that the woman depicted Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. This is based on the stance of the kore and the fact that her hand, which is believed to have been made separately, may have held something such as a bow or arrows,
Such korai were most often used as commemorative or votive statues. Whereas statues depicting young boys, the kouroi, were always nude, statues of young women, the korai, were always clothed. Various theories could explain this difference, including how the two sexes were viewed in society. It is also generally believed that the kouroi were used by sculptors as studies of human anatomy, while the korai provided a study on how to accurately show drapery in sculpture.
3. Statuette of Athena Promachos, 475-470 BCE
“Promachos” means “first in battle”. The theme of the goddess Athena as Promachos is reflected in her confident and assertive stance. The spear and shield that she would be holding are assumed to be missing. Made of bronze during the Classical period, the statuette was discovered in 1887. Athena’s helmet is decorated with a crest. The goddess is clad in peplos, chiton, and himation. Athena also wears the aegis, her protective cloak, decorated with scales and snakes. The inscription on the bottom says that ‘Meleso dedicated it to Athena as a tithe’. This, and other similar statues, bear a resemblance to statues from the east pediment of the Parthenon. However, this sculpture is rare in that it is made of bronze. Metal statues and objects were often melted down and used for other purposes, such as weapons and other functional items. Consequently, only a handful of bronze sculptures from ancient Greece have survived to the present.
4. “Kritios Boy”, after 480 BCE
The “Kritios Boy,” named for the suspected sculptor, is an outstanding example of a kouros type sculpture. Made during the early Classical Period, this sculpture highlights the contrapposto stance, which enabled sculptors to show bodies in motion. It is also a truly naturalistic study of the human form. Rendered in the so-called “severe style,” the Kritios Boy wears a stoic expression common to Classical era sculptures of the time.
The identity of the young man shown is unknown. Some surmise that he is an athlete. Others claim that he represents a mythological figure. Depicted in the nude, this sculpture is a celebration of the idealized male form. The museum states that the head was detached from the body of the sculpture and that the torso was found some 20 years after the head.
5. Karyatid, 420-415 BCE
As a group, the Karyatids acted as columns supporting the roof of Erechteion’s southern porch. The Erechteion was a holy site of Athens and the place where the city’s founding myths came together under one roof.
Six in number, the Karyatids are perfect examples of contrapposto, bearing all their weight on one leg while the other is bent at the knee. The sculptor’s skill is evident in the way the marble feels transparent, like the drapery it means to mimic.
Much restoration work has been done on the original Karyatids by museum staff since their removal from the Erechtheion in 1979. Most significantly, the pollution has been removed, restoring the marble to its original color and revealing traces of the pigments used for decoration. The polychromy of the Karyatids and many other sculptures is currently being researched by scholars at the museum.
The Acropolis Museum boasts five of the original six Karyatids. The last one remains at the British Museum in spite of repeated calls for its return. This sixth Karyatid was among the horde of sculptures removed by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century.
The Parthenon Frieze
Perhaps the most renowned part of the museum’s collection is the sculptures of the Parthenon Frieze. Half of the original sculptures were lost over time, while approximately one-quarter of the original sculptural elements are housed in Greece. While the Parthenon is Doric in style, it features Ionic elements such as the frieze, which is a traditional characteristic of Ionic architecture.
In its entirety, the frieze contained nearly 400 human and divine figures as well as over 200 animals. Designed and carved by the renowned sculptor Pheidias, the frieze depicted the Panathenaic procession held in Athens to honor its patron, Athena. The frieze is reassembled on the third floor. It depicted the procession that would take place in honor of and during the sacred day of Athena. The west side depicts the preparation of the procession. The south and north depict the procession, which includes horse riders, sacrificial animals, chariots, and more. The east side depicts various gods and the handing of Athena’s sacred peplos that took place at the end of the procession.
The peplos scene reveals the tradition of offering a special garment to Athena’s cult statue, housed in the Erechtheion. To this day, the Greek government is actively soliciting the repatriation of the rest of the Parthenon frieze from the British Museum.
The Acropolis Museum actively undertakes a host of conservation efforts. Laser cleaning is regularly performed on the artifacts, many of which are sullied with pollution. Surface dirt and discolorations are able to be removed using specially modified laser cleaning systems. Studies of polychromy on many of the statues are being undertaken to assist in conservation efforts. And plaster casts are being made to help integrate original fragments into a larger whole to help visitors make meaning of the objects in a larger context. Although some work is done in the lab, visitors do have the opportunity to watch conservators at work on the objects from time to time. Additionally, much of the collection is being digitized so that it may be studied in depth without handling or shipping the objects, potentially causing damage.
Getting to the Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum is located at Dionysiou Areopagitou 15, 11742 Athens. It is accessible by metro, located on line 2 Anthoupoli – Elliniko, nearest the Akropoli station. The museum can also be reached by tram (Leoforos Vouliagmenis station), bus (Makrigianni stop), and trolley (Makrigianni stop). Virtual tours of the museum are also available.