The New Acropolis Museum is good . . .
I’ve been in Athens for a few days and the main purpose was to see round the New Acropolis Museum, nearly finished and with a few sculptures already installed. My expectations were a bit muted, and I’d read rather too much about the whole thing being a mausoleum for the missing Elgin Marbles.
Actually it was, in all sorts of ways, a very nice surprise. The top floor where the Parthenon Marbles are to be displayed worked especially well – looking directly at the temple on the Acropolis itself and, as the jargon goes, having “a conversation” with it (though one of my Greek friends did mutter darkly about it being a rather one-sided conversation).
It’s a great view and the frieze comes over very powerfully, being on show at roughly the same height as the sections in the British Museum – but arranged as it was on the original building, not ‘inside out’ as in the Duveen Gallery.
They’re still trying to work out how best to display the metopes, and at what height.
Other good bits include the clever play of levels, throughout the museum. Not only do you move up through time, going through the archaic galleries on the middle floor to reach the classical Parthenon at the top. But there are also marvellous views through glass floors (right) to the excavations of Roman Athens underneath the Museum itself.
The middle galleries seem vast, with huge columns – and on the day we went some of the famous archaic sculpture was just being taken out of its packing cases, and unwrapped from its protective shrouds. It did seem though that the space was so big that the sculptures were going to end up looking very small. But then, I suppose they are quite small.
The only bit on the inside which didn’t seem at all worked out yet was the sculpture from the tiny temple of Athena Nike, which perched on the edge of the Acropolis. These deserve to have a lofty airy home in the Museum -- though it looked as if they were in danger of being pushed into one of the few dark corners the building had to offer.
The blot on the landscape was, I thought, the outside: distinguished enough in a hubristic kind of architectural way, but wildly out of proportion to its surroundings, in a rather low rise area of Athens (hence the joke about it being a rather one-sided conversation). And it’s pretty brutal too, rather like a designer multi-storey car park.
The main controversy in Athens, though, is about two art deco houses, which stand between the new Museum and the Acropolis and are said to spoil the view. In fact the original architectural brief laid down that these houses were to stay and that any design should take account of them. Even so there is still a campaign to demolish them and rumours that that is what the architect Bernard Tschumi hoped for all along. And, of course, there is a counter campaign orchestrated by the musician Vangelis, who happens to own one of the offending houses.
Knowing about this fuss, I was surprised quite how unobtrusive these houses are. OK the backs of the houses which you see from the Museum are a bit messy, but they fit in nicely with the cheerful amalgam that is modern Athens. And actually, Tschumi fulfilled his brief, and the houses really don’t impede the view f the temple.
So, given my generally positive reaction, did I think I should get off the fence about the return (or not) of the Elgin Marbles? Well, no . . . It’s going to be one of the world’s great museums, but for me the issue has never been about whether the sculpture was well looked after and displayed in Greece. So this doesn’t change the argument.
For me, it's going to be perfectly possible to love this wonderful new showcase for the Acropolis collection -- and still not be sure whether the Elgin marbles should be "repatriated".