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A New Home for the Treasures of the Acropolis Volume 62 Number 5, September/October 2009
by Jarrett A. Lobell
[image] [image] Ten years of excavation at the museum site uncovered evidence of more than 3,500 years of habitation, including houses, large wells and cisterns, roads, and thousands of artifacts. After protest by prominent archaeologists, the excavation was integrated in the building's design, allowing appreciation of another layer of the city's history. (Courtesy Bernard Tschumi Architects)
The new Acropolis Museum integrates the history of Athens, from the 19th-century former military hospital (left) that houses the museum's offices to the excavation under the museum's courtyard, and especially the Parthenon, visible in reflection at the top. (Thalassini Douma)

The busiest person at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens on the morning of its official opening was the window washer. I watched as he moved his ladder across the building's facade, holding a bottle of glass cleaner in one hand and a red towel in the other. With thousands of square feet of glass panels forming the walls, he had a lot to do before the museum welcomed heads of state, diplomats, and European royalty for a formal opening ceremony that evening. Despite the magnitude of the event--the culmination of decades of lobbying and lawsuits--everything was remarkably calm. Uninterested policemen stood around, chatting loudly. The occasional tourist stopped to take photos. Kids played a noisy game of soccer and kicked up dust. People were out walking their dogs, shopping, or just enjoying the sun before the Athenian summer heat kicked in. True, there were still a few cranes in the museum's backyard, and some exposed electrical cables still snaked across the ground. But the city was ready.

It's hard for outsiders to conceive of this museum's importance to the Greeks. The ancient world is part of their identity in a way that can be difficult to appreciate. And there is no more potent link to this past than the buildings and artifacts of the Acropolis. This enormous flat-topped rock rising 500 feet above sea level is home to iconic buildings representing Greece's fifth-century B.C. "Golden Age"--the Temple of Athena Nike (Victory) covered in friezes showing Athenian military prowess; the striking marble women who take the place of columns on the Erechtheion's porch; and the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens--all symbols not only of the city, but of the highest artistic achievements of classical Greece. In the words of culture minister Antonis Samaras, addressing the first group of foreign journalists touring the museum, "Be inspired by the museum's transcendent message, which is Greek and therefore universal, but ours alone to share...and please remember that what you will discover is not just part of our history, it is also a part of our soul, of who we are."

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Five of the original six caryatids from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis are installed on a porch intended to recall the building. The sixth is in the British Museum, and her space has been left deliberately empty. (Nikos Daniilidis) Original marble pieces of the Parthenon's frieze (like the head above) are inserted into plaster casts of the panels, most of which are in the British Museum, reinforcing the message that the Greeks want the marbles back. (Jarrett A. Lobell)

Jarrett A. Lobell is executive editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.