Following my short crash-test of Athens’ two major museums, here are my fairly detailed impressions from them: Athens' National Archaeological Museum and the new Acropolis Museum.
National Archaeological Museum
The neoclassical building of the museum, at 44 Patission St. (aka 28 Oktovriou St.), is a listed building itself, dating back to the late 19th century – gradually expanded in the 20th century with additional wings. If you come across old photos of late 19th or early 20th century Athens you will see it standing out, almost alone, at what was then the outer edges of the city!
Problematic surroundings: Up until a year ago, scores of drug addicts had made a permanent joint out of the pedestrian Tositsa St. at the sidewalk of the National Technical University of Athens, ocassionaly extending till the sidewalk of Patission St. So, visitors to the Museum had to walk close to scores of junkies, with their erratic behavior, to access Greece’s most important museum! This has partly changed now as they had been pushed further away, (but not too far...) and Tositsa St. is guarded most of the time. I even occasionaly see tourist buses parked outside! What a shock...! (Last update: 2013-03-24). Furthermore, front banners hanging from the flag poles are covered with pigeon sh*t for years now, serving as a warning sign of neglect. Patission (aka 28 Oktovriou) St. itself has been on a long downward spiral but there are some minor signs of recovery. Just to be clear, this is a location in the center of Athens with lots of people walking and driving nearby.
The day I first wrote this post (in early 2011) some drug addicts were sitting at the shade of the garden as I entered, but as I exited there were kids playing soccer right outside. Let's hope this will be a permanent change one day.
Accessibility & Access: You may approach the museum from either Omonia or Victoria Metro Stations.
From Omonia Metro Station, get out of the Station following the Panepistimiou St. Exit, walk up Panepistimiou (aka Eleftheriou Venizelou St.) for just 1 block and turn left on Patission (aka 28 Oktovriou) St. You will see the Museum’s big lawn after 7-8 blocks (7-10min walk).
From Victoria Metro Station, which may be the safer choice, walk upwards at Heyden St. and turn right on 28 Oktovriou / Patission St. Walk for about 6 blocks until you see the Museum’s big lawn, across the street (7-10min walk).
There’s a bunch of bus-stops right at the front (Patission St.) and on the side (Vassileos Irakleiou St.) of the Museum. Buses and Trolleys No. 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 11, 13, 15, 18, 19, E6.
People on wheel-chairs need to enter from the north side street (Vassileos Irakleiou) which has a corridor taking you to a side door. Otherwise, from the main entrance / big lawn go left and then right to reach a ramp that takes you to the same side-door. The museum shop and toilets are also accessible.
Museum exhibits: Now that new guards have finally been hired (and all exhibit halls are open), “the Museum” (to Mousseio), as Athenians often refer to it, is again a must go destination for foreigners and Greeks alike. It is a virtual treasure trove of ancient Greek art, the most important museum of ancient Greek art in the world and the country’s top museum. Your visit to Athens won’t be complete without it.
To prepare myself for the visit I used the museum’s website but mainly Rick Steves’ “Athens & The Peloponnese” Guide and I’m glad I did. The Guide’s chapter on the Museum is just excellent (right length, right amount of detail and very well-written) and helps put things into perspective in a concise way, bypassing archaeological jargon that dominates most museum signs. If only our school books were of such high quality! I guess it’s no accident it’s such a popular guide [You may buy it here from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk and help maintain this blog]. Two other guide-books that I own (these two generally on Greece) had very limited info on the Museum.
Almost anything and everything you’ve ever heard of regarding Ancient Greek art can be found in this Museum at some form, although emphasis was initially placed in artifacts found around Athens, and exhibits from southern Greece still dominate the collection. From prehistoric times around 6,000BC to 5th century AD, artifacts covering the whole ancient Greek world are here on display (bronze statues, marble statues, ornaments and sculpture of all sizes, vases, coins, jewels and various instruments, frescoes from the island of Thira (Santorini) and even a couple of perfectly preserved skeletons found in the Keramikos cemetery in Athens. The Museum’s interior was redesigned 2-3 years ago and is much more appealing nowadays from what I remembered. Aside from the permanent collections there are at least a couple of temporary exhibitions each year. The upper floor houses the vase collection, Cyprus collection, ornamental figurines collection, Egyptian collection and jewel collection. As it’s impossible to concentrate on everything I suggest just picking a few random artifacts in each room (aside from the major ones) and concentrating on appreciating their details. Trying to “see everything” will simply give you a headache.
Visitor experience: I must admit I came with a negative predisposition. David (mentioned in the previous short post) had visited the museum twice (in spring 2011) and was still not able to see everything he had wanted as the museum was understaffed at that time and many halls were closed. And if that was not enough, visitors were shooed out of the building half an hour before the official closing time! So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that things have more or less normalized now. All rooms were open, the museum shop seemed to be (more or less…) stocked with its very interesting gifts (like replicas of ancient coins and artifacts), the museum was not annoyingly crowded (on a Monday afternoon) and the antiquated but shaded café in the basement garden downstairs was operating [However, famous food blogger Peter Minakis, a.k.a. Kalofagas, informs me that Greek coffee here is prepared using an espresso machine, which sounds hideous for this type of coffee!]. Some among the personnel could have been a bit politer and more professional but for the most part things are cranking along. Visitors were asked to leave 20 (not 30) minutes before closing time which is according to rules posted on the website but still not very user-friendly when people are coming from the other end of the world to see this! It shouldn't take a genius to figure out a solution to this problem.
The best thing is that people are allowed to take no-flash, portable camera photos (except for in the section housing the jewel collection).
Overall, the museum has a slight “civil-service”, sterile atmosphere but you don’t have any major distractions on your visit either.
Length of visit: 2-6 hours, or a lifetime, depending on your level of interest. I stayed for 4 hours and I was already tired at the end. If you concentrate strictly on the artifacts highlighted by the Rick Steves’ Guide (read above) you could possibly do this in a frantic 1.5 hour.
Museum Hours: Mon: 13:00-20:00, Tue-Sun: 08:00-15:00 [Updated 2013-03-24, hours may change in the summer].
Admission: 7€. Reduced 3€ ticket for EU seniors (> 65) and non-EU students with ID. Free entrance for <19, EU students with ID. Free on select dates for everybody (see here)
New Acropolis Museum
The new Acropolis Museum, located at 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Promenade, is the result of a long-term planning process, which started in the mid-1980s and culminated in its inauguration, in June 2009. The modernist building was designed to provide direct view to the Parthenon itself on the Acropolis hill across the street and to remind people of the need to bring back the Parthenon marbles gruesomely carved out by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. Natural light smoothly entering the building from all sides gives it an almost ethereal feel, besides its huge volume, and you probably won’t get the usual “museum fatigue” feel that you may associate with other large museums.
The ground and first floor also provide the unique experience of walking around the beautiful statues and marbles, not just in front of them as in most archeological museums, and thus creates a sense of intimacy between the visitor and the exhibits. However, I would have liked to have seen a few more explanatory texts, giving a better overall description of the historical and artistic context of the time these artifacts were created, especially at the start of the 1st floor where statues and marbles seem to almost come out of nowhere. [And yes, I visited after the recent addition of the explanatory signs in May 2011]. To complete my… critique, let me say that I occasionally felt a bit uneasy about the way some exhibits are positioned, with people passing hurriedly and heedlessly by, at a dangerously short distance. On the other hand, unlike the Archeological Museum, the Acropolis Museum hires archeologists as guards so they are in a position to give you more explanations if you wish so – and seem to enjoy their job more. There are special mini-presentations ("gallery talks") in Greek and English on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Check website or info desk for schedule.
It’s also worth saying that even visitors who don’t have time to enter the museum may take a peek at the excavations still taking place at the museum’s foundations, as there’s a glass flooring and a hole that allows you to check out the ongoing works.
Visitor experience: Besides the care taken to make the museum accessible to all and to bring the visitor as close to the statues and marbles as possible, there is a very good restaurant (presentation here), cafeteria and bookstore on the 2nd floor, free Wi-Fi internet access on the 2nd floor balcony, a small café and shop on the ground floor and toilets everywhere (the toilets could be better equipped but in good overall condition anyway).
There are books –mostly on the 2nd floor bookstore– on the museum, the Acropolis and Athens in various languages (although most are understandably in Greek). I did a quick browsing of several ones and particularly liked the one called “The New Acropolis Museum – A guide for young people” (or something like that). I may not fall into its target group but it contained several interesting bytes of information; enough to excite your curiosity without causing a headache to non-archeologists! There also was a coffee-table book titled “Athens” (Militos Editions) with very nice photographs of the city and a small, spiral-bound booklet, in many languages, with pictures of the ancient monuments as they were in their prime and as they are now.
Length of visit: 2 - 4 hours
Museum Hours: Summer hours (1 April - 31 October): Tue-Sun: 08:00-20:00, last Entrance: 19:30. Fri: 08:00-22:00 w/ restaurant open till midnight. Winter hours (1 November - 31 March): Tue-Thu: 09:00-17:00, Fri: 09:00-22:00, Sat-Sun: 09:00-20:00. Visitors are reminded to start leaving 15 minutes before closing time but this is done through a P.A. system and not by “throwing people out”…