The gods are in the details

 

The New Acropolis Museum, which sits below the Parthenon, is a fitting tribute to the area’s Classical past and its myths about Greek gods, as its curator, Dimitrios Pandermalis, explains

IT HAS TO BE this way; the finest of modern design had to bow to the gods. And in Athens it could be no other way. High above the city is the hill of the Acropolis, the citadel upon which the remains of the Parthenon, the finest Doric temple in the world, stands.

Whether viewed by day or night, it is a dramatic sight. The Acropolis separates daily life from what was and remains mythic symbolism. The centuries fall away and you are looking at not only the beginning of history, but of civilisation, of democracy, of literature.

Various cults used to dwell in caves in the slopes of the Acropolis; cults devoted to Zeus, Apollo, Pan and the nymph Aglauros, daughter of Kekrops, once king of Athens.

Stories surround each stone. The wealth of archaeology is the envy of the world. Yet until now it has been impossible to see the thousands of artefacts that were stored away because there was no space to display them.

Standing on the plateau of the Acropolis gazing at the Parthenon is as elevating as it is humbling. But for all the romance of this wonderful sight, common sense must ask the question: “How to preserve this beauty, this legacy?” Archaeologist and curator Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis smiles his quiet smile. He has spent the past 30 years battling for the construction of a museum worthy of the site: the defining symbol of world archaeology.

It looks as if, with the new glass and concrete building in the foothills of the Acropolis, he has achieved exactly that.

“We have all of these wonders and, yes, we must look after the heritage but we also want the people of Greece and the visitors who come from all over the world to see what has survived the centuries and also to understand it.”

Unsaid, at least for the moment, is the other story, the litany of objects taken from Greece and brought to museums around the world. Pandermalis again smiles, “This is the story of much archaeology; in order to see it, and share it, pieces are scattered throughout many countries.”

No one country, it seems, can expect to keep either its archaeology or its art, in situ. Classical pieces are as likely to be found in Berlin, London or Boston as they are in Athens or Rome. However, it makes little sense to have about half of the Parthenon frieze in Athens and most of the rest of it in the British Museum, which acquired it after Lord Elgin had removed it from Athens in 1801 (and who kept the Marbles in his own house for a while).

But Pandermalis did not come to Dublin to discuss the spoils of war. His recent address was more celebratory. When delivering the Irish Museums Association Annual Lecture, he described the project that has, with the support of the Greek Government, fulfilled his life’s dream – a new museum at the Acropolis.

Modern architecture at its most subtle has created a setting which preserves the site without enclosing it. In fairness to the old museum, which remains on the site, it was first opened in 1865 and was never capable of accommodating the antiquities. At best it gave a glimpse at what was there; at worst, it was a storehouse.

The New Acropolis Museum, designed by the New York-based Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, covering 25,000sq m, is 10 times larger. It is arranged over three floors, the first of which is built over the remains of a 5,000 year-old settlement.

The discovery of the settlement delayed the completion of the museum. It has now become part of it. A glass floor covers the excavation site, enabling visitors to look down on it and view archaeologists at work. It creates a very real sense of walking on history. This engagement with the past is at the heart of the design. Endeavours to protect archaeological sites have invariably placed the public at a distance. Visitors at many heritage sites in this state have experienced the wary rebukes of OPW staff anxious, at times over-zealous, in their protection. The New Acropolis Museum is intent on allowing the public to engage. Visitors are allowed to walk directly up to the many statues and artefacts on display.

How aware is the average Greek of their heritage? “They have become more so, but if you live in Athens, it is a part of daily life. You see it all around you.”

But at what point does this awareness relax into simply taking it for granted? Pandermalis smiles that smile. “We were too casual; there was so much archaeology all around us. Much of it was stolen; all the bronze pieces for instance. Much of that was used to make weapons. So the precious materials were stolen, the clay was left.

“But the careless attitude has changed. We see this is where we came from, this is our identity.”

He goes on to explain the changes which have taken place. Even the notorious Athens smog has been dealt with. “Finally people realised the damage it was causing not just to the environment but to the heritage,” it was eating into the stone, causing it to crumble particularly through the effects of acid rain.

His engagement with archaeology came about through direct contact with it. When he was a student in his native Thessaloniki, a coastal town in north eastern Greece, his literature teacher took a group of students on a walking tour. “He pointed out the buildings, the statues. I was overwhelmed, I had been studying literature but I changed to archaeology. It became my passion. I have worked on many excavations. My house, I have an apartment in Athens, but my house is at the foot of Mount Olympus. This is where I want to live.”

It must be the dream place for anyone, but particularly for a Greek. Immortalised in mythology as the dwelling place of the supreme gods, Olympus, on the border of Thessaly and Macedonia, is far from Athens, close to Pandermalis’s home town. He refers to the peace there, and the olive groves. But his sigh is more of the romantic dreamer than of a man who feels his work is done. As the president of the new museum, which was formally opened ahead of schedule last June, he knows the project is still young. The public has already supported it; as yet, the Greek visitors significantly outnumber the international figures.

What makes this museum so special are, “the views over Athens, and the use of the natural light”. But there are other factors. The construction process revealed further archaeological and architectural layers as well as a wealth of artefacts. The vast amount of pottery which survives testifies to the ease of making it; the advantage of being able to dry it in the sun. Even the simplest pot or platter has its story. The span of continuous settlement ranges from the late Neolithic (about 3,000 BC) to the 6th century or early medieval period.

The second floor houses the Archaic Gallery with its wealth of dramatic statues. Most of them depict female shapes honouring, as they do, Athena, the presiding deity of the Acropolis. Yet there are also riders and some magnificent stone chariot horses.

Unlike the archaeology of Egypt, which is dominated by burial, Greek archaeology is more celebratory. “This is true,” agrees Pandermalis. “The Egyptian is very much one of the dead, ours is more living.”

At the top level is a gallery dedicated to the Parthenon. Begun in 447 BC, the temple took 15 years to build and involved painters and coppersmiths as well as masons and sculptors. The legendary frieze depicts 360 human and divine figures, and more than 250 animals, mostly horses. It has been designed in the form of a procession and is mounted on a wall. It is 160m long and about 80m of this is original. The remaining half is a facsimile, copied from the sections held mainly in the British Museum (a smaller section is in Paris).

THE ONGOING ARGUMENT ABOUT Greek rights to the section held in Britain has long been a source of tension. Whereas many classical artefacts held in foreign museums were negotiated for – the Pergamon Museum in Berlin attributes its classical collection to extensive 19th century negotiations, many of which began only with extraction licences – the section of the Parthenon frieze, now known as the Elgin Marbles, were taken from Athens by Lord Elgin, who sold them to settle his debts. The story, as much as the physical absence of the pieces, has angered many. Elgin was not alone: Napoleon ordered extensive looting of Egyptian tombs.

Now, more than ever, with such a magnificent on-site home available, would seem the ideal time to return them. But enforced repatriation of archaeology would have massive political, cultural and educational repercussions.

The philosophical Pandermalis smiles and mentions the many quarrels, “the many and great quarrels”, that went into both securing and constructing the new museum. “History is full of these quarrels; just as heritage and its protection usually comes down to the use and abuse of history.”