Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The New Acropolis Museum

While it was still cool this morning, we crossed the street to look more closely at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. We see it from our hotel balcony—we have a fabulous view—but we had not yet walked around the grounds. Only 15 out of the original 104 columns remain, but it’s still impressive as hell. Afterwards we walked over to the Panathenaic Stadium, site of the 1896 Olympic games—the first since ancient times. The stadium had over the centuries fallen into disuse, but was restored at the end of the nineteenth century. It was completely deserted, sadly so. The stadium is magnificent, and the modest admission fee includes a very good audio guide explaining the history of the site.

We sat down at the stadium cafe to have some fresh orange juice, and, as often happens, ended up chatting with a staff member, a young woman in her twenties. She said that most of her friends were unemployed or working minimal jobs, even those with M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s. Nonetheless, she was concerned that we were having a good time and was eager to supply us with suggestions.

As the day warmed up, we retreated to the air-conditioned environs of the Acropolis Museum. We stayed over six hours, an indication of how smitten we were with the collection and the building. Architecturally, the museum isn’t especially striking from the outside; certainly, it pales in comparison to the Getty or Bilbao museums designed by Frank Gehry. Inside, though, it’s just brilliant. Natural light bathes the sculptures, and the interior space somehow captures the feeling of walking through the Parthenon. The top floor, where one views the friezes and metopes, parallels the Acropolis; the lower floors line up with the street. Most remarkable of all, the entire building stands suspended over an active archaeological dig. Glass panels built into the floor just outside the museum entrance reveal ongoing excavation, showing the layers of civilization upon which modern Athens is built.

Until my afternoon in this museum, I had not realized the extent to which the southernmost part of the Acropolis has yielded a treasure trove of everyday artifacts. Here, one doesn’t see the precious treasures of Vergina but the objects used everyday by artisans and priests, cavalry and slaves. I learned a lot. Equally informative were the floors containing friezes from the Parthenon and statuary from the grounds. Commentary is excellent, something not necessarily true at the older museums, and augmented by a very good video on this history of the Acropolis.

The Acropolis Museum clearly wants to be accessible. Entrance fees are laughably cheap by American standards—5 euros for adults and 3 for “special category”—and even the cafĂ© and restaurant are reasonable. We had an excellent lunch comprised of three dishes (tomato salad, grilled eggplant, and Santorini-style fava beans with capers and olive oil), bread, and white wine to the tune of 21 euros. The portions, in typical Greek style, were substantial. The last time we ate at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, we paid nearly twice that amount for far less. The museum also provides free lectures. We stayed until 6.15 p.m. to hear one of the archaeologists talk about horses in ancient art; he stayed and chatted with us afterwards, generously giving me the names of several colleagues who specialize in classical theatre.

When I was in graduate school, I went through a heavy Latin phase. I needed to learn Latin for my studies, but my curiosity took me well beyond basic competence. I became good enough to sight read Virgil, Catullus, Ovid, and, of course, Cicero. Seeing my facility with the language, my Latin professors urged me to learn Greek; they also tried to woo me over to the doctoral program in classics. I’m too old to become a classicist, but I am thinking about Greek once again . . .

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