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Since the 1970s, the Museum of Acropolis could not cope satisfactorily with the large crowds of visitors.
The inadequacy of space caused problems and downgraded the sense that it was achieved by the exposure of masterpieces from the Acropolis Rock.
Apart from the fact that the existing museum was deemed insufficient to house and expose the famous findings of the Acropolis, it could not expose all the sculptures that were necessarily moved from their position for the maintenance work.
For all these reasons, two architectural competitions took place in 1976 and 1979, but without success. On March 12th, 1989, Melina Mercouri initiated an international design competition that as Minister of Culture inextricably identified her policy with the demand for the return of the Elgin Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. This competition was canceled after the revelation of a large residential area at Makriyianni site, dating from Prehistoric to Byzantine times. The excavation should be included in the New Museum.
Bernard Tschumi faced a huge challenge, when he won the competition for the Acropolis Museum in Athens and he was called to design a new landmark for the city. Greece had been struggling to become part of Europe in all possible ways (politically, culturally, etc.) since the ‘70s, and that museum would be the main ally to support this goal.
Greek political system had since the very beginning focused its efforts on setting up a country that expresses the ideals of a European cultural heritage. The attempts to fit in the western society had started since the end of 19th century, after the declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire, and during the period that followed there was a constant effort discard all the residues of East culture. The aim was to reclaim the ancient past instead, and define national identity and civilization on that part of history. Therefore, the remains of the Greek antiquity became very important in the shaping of the state and society.
The Museum of Acropolis is a political statement of Greece and an instrument for Greek government to forward to western society a new national identity. This is an identity that promotes Greek ancient heritage and preserves it in a high tech 21st century shell. Those elements combined, form a clear view of how Greek society wants to be perceived today. The aim is to form an infrastructure of equal value with Western Europe, of rich cultural civilization and high technology resources which are demonstrated on Tschumi's museum. At this stage the author would like to clarify that this is an effort to translate and analyze the new Museum of Acropolis, not aesthetically and even more not from a personal point of view, but as a political and cultural statement of what Greek society is trying to reflect and promote of Greece in the 21st century, to western Europe and globally.
The site of New Acropolis Museum is the building block surrounded by Dionysius Areopagite, Makriyannis, Chatzichristou and Mitseon roads. As a result, visitors while exploring the archaeological sites of the surrounding areas are naturally guided towards the museum, and unconsciously feel a connection between the ancient and contemporary Greece.
The ground of the site has a smooth slope, approximately 8% downward to the south, and part of its surface is covered by public buildings, which due to its historical, architectural and morphological interest have identified as monumental by the Ministry of Culture.
Three architectural parameters reverse the limitations of the site, in a challenge to create a simple and precise museum revealing the mathematical and lucid clarity of ancient Greece the Light, the Movement and the Structure of the building.
More than any other type of museums, the data of the new Archaeological Museum of Acropolis are based around the light. It is primarily a museum of natural light with the key purpose of “the presence of sculpture”.
The three main materials of the museum is glass, which is used mostly for facades and some floors, concrete for the core and columns and marble for some floors. The columns of the east and west façade and the Parthenon Gallery have been constructed from steel.
There is a harmony of proportion between the scale of the space that leads to the building and the scale of the building itself. Equivalent scales of "emptiness" and of "non-emptiness" are developed in two axes, one horizontal and one vertical. If the building was missing the journey to the entrance, the whole impression of the museum and especially the first reaction to it, would be diametrically opposite. Now the visitor is prepared slowly and phased into a whole experience which starts before entering the museum.
There is a relationship of volume between the New Museum of Acropolis and the Parthenon which is very noticeable when reading the site plan, as well as when inhabiting the region. In an area where the scale of surrounding buildings is much smaller, as the site is located in a domestic zone, those are the only two elements that stand out, which both are of monumental scale.
The visual relationship to the Parthenon and the landscape
On the level between the Roman period exhibition and the Parthenon's Gallery there is a communal space which includes a bookshop and a dining area. Right in front of the restaurant a canopy unfolds, which is supported by "herculean columns" that define the main entrance placed right below. The canopy extends from the building towards the ancient Rock of Acropolis.
The view from the restaurant's balcony to the Parthenon is partly blocked because of two neoclassical buildings that stand in front of the museum. Tchumi's planning includes the demolition of those which has caused a great field of debate for architects and critics in Greece. Some argue that the canopy is "perfectly positioned as if to ram into the demolition-endangered residences and then onto the rock of the Acropolis itself" as Dr Alexandra Stara says in the Architectural Review, no. 1348, June 2009.
Any solution to this dilemma will be harmful only to architectural creation. If the two preserved neoclassical buildings in Aeropagitou Street are demolished, Athens will lose two great pieces of its architectural heritage. If they are not, Tschumi's desired contradictions will not take place and his architecture will not be completed.
The part of the museum that contains the most obvious political and cultural statement is the Parthenon gallery. It was a vision by Melina Merkouri, Greek actress and politician (principal female Minister for Culture of Greece), who was the first person to claim back the Parthenon marbles from the British government. Her dream was that the most impressive room of the new museum of Acropolis should stay empty until the marbles go back to Greece. The creation of this gallery opens again the conversation between United Kingdom and Greece for the return of the marbles.
The Parthenon Gallery is a representation of the temple including a large rectangular space where the carved marble panels that decorated the original are exposed. The marbles face the issue of heterotopia (misplacement or displacement of a bodily organ), and the Parthenon gallery is designed by the architect with an apparent aim to create similar circumstances between the place of displaced marbles and the real location where they used to be displayed once.
The construction of the project started at a cost of €130 million in November 2004, and it was completed within the period of three years. The Ministry of Culture continued its most important work; the exposure of valuable and priceless exhibits. The transfer of major exhibits to the museum began in the autumn of 2008 and it was completed in May 2009. On June 20th, 2009 the Museum opened its gates to the citizens of the world.
Within one year from the bright opening day, the new Acropolis Museum has made great impression, with the number of visitors reaching two million. However, it has outstanding issues such as not secured a financial independence, statutes and variety of products in the museum shop.
According to Mr. D. Pantermalis, Director of the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum and later Director of the Museum itself, The Acropolis Museum as a self-funded organization is facing financial problems which struggles to be solves. With approximately 5.5 million income, the museum needs to cover the salaries of 90 - 95% of the staff and functional costs such as electricity, gas etc. which is about 1 Euros. As the Director of the Museum states, the economic crisis requires flexibility and thoughtful adaptation to enable the Museum to move ahead.
Due to the economic crisis and the debt “haircut” the assets of the Museum have been reduced by 3 million Euros and among other things, this caused a long delay to the excavation at the base of the Museum, something that it’s pending for the future.
The whole museum is a statement, a constant argument of the coexistence of ancient with contemporary Greece. Tshcumi's design makes the visitor feel a part of a monumental piece of architecture, important and unique, almost as the Parthenon.
This building offers Greece a new national identity. It demonstrates and promotes what Greece is most proud of, the ancient Greek civilization. And all this is placed in one of the most important technological achievements of our times.
But the question that remains is if the museum still expresses the same meanings under the current economic crisis that Greece is going through.