Few other cultural institutions in Greece evoke so much excitement as the Acropolis Museum. Youngsters whisper to each other as they gaze at the stunning video that was screened on the walls of adjacent apartment buildings for the grand opening in 2009. Parents get choked up as they see how the metopes were transported from the Parthenon to their new home and everyone is enthralled by the process of cleaning the statuesque Caryatides of centuries of dirt. The museum’s conservationists reveal all the details on these wonderful female figures, showing the public that, contrary to popular belief, the ancient Greek world was not all white, but bathed in color.
The Acropolis Museum is constantly abuzz with visitors, from the gift shops – top sellers are the excellent museum guide and souvenirs – to the restaurant about which so much has been written.
It’s been five years since the Acropolis Museum opened its doors and to date it has received more than 6.5 million visitors, says its president Dimitris Pantermalis, conceding that it saw a small slump in numbers in 2012-13 but is now back up to an average of 4,000 a day. The museum operates with a staff of 200 and is bankrolled without government funding but only from the revenues from ticket sales, the gift shops and the restaurant, says Pantermalis, adding that the museum’s annual operating costs are 7 million euros, just enough to keep it going.
Some plans have been put on the back burner due to a lack of additional funds after its reserves were trimmed by some 3 million euros, but Pantermalis insists on keeping prices where they are, especially at the restaurant, which has extremely reasonable prices considering its location.
“The museum was built with taxpayers’ money and we want people to keep coming back,” he says.
The days when Pantermalis and the officials in charge of the Acropolis kept having to dash off to court to stave off complaints from residents of the Makriyianni neighborhood protesting the new museum’s construction seem very far away today.
“It is characteristic of human history,” says Pantermalis. “The complaints were transformed into cheers. In both cases, there should be some restraint. I knew from the onset that what we were doing was not opportunistic. We had a debt as a country to those who created all this wealth back in the 5th century BC.”
For the museum’s birthday party today, Pantermalis has decided not to go big, but rather to open the premises to the public for an evening of jazz. He is also excited about the new technology being applied by the museum to help visitors better understand the exhibits. In the Archaic sculpture hall, for example, the space usually occupied by a Kore that is currently on loan for exhibitions in Italy and Canada is now taken up by a screen depicting how the fragments of the statue and the curls of her hair were reassembled and how the statue was originally colored.
On the third floor, displays narrate short stories about the Parthenon.
“Visitors don’t need to make an exhaustive tour of the museum. You can’t last more than two hours if you want to have a proper understanding of the information,” says Pantermalis.
Focus on excavations
One of the plans that the museum has had to put on hold is a separate yet connected museum dedicated to excavations as well as a virtual tour of what the area around the museum would have looked like in ancient times.
The entrance to this space will be on the northern side of the building. Visitors will be able to walk down the ancient road and see the buildings that once composed the neighborhood while walking toward what remains of it at the excavation site.
“It was a middle-class and artistic neighborhood that dates from the Classical period to the early Byzantine years,” explains Pantermalis.
The president of the museum adds that he is not making any plans for the museum to host temporary exhibitions.
“As long as the permanent exhibition remains a major draw, I am compelled to continue investing in it,” he says, adding that among these investments is showing sculptures in their original colors.
At the same time, Pantermalis is wary of gimmicks to increase revenues or visitor numbers. “You need to keep a balance. We have had requests from big fashion houses to show work inspired by the museum’s original pieces here on the premises. We refused,” he says, adding that the rule is that anything that goes on in the museum needs to be in the service of the subject at hand.
One of the Acropolis Museum’s biggest successes is how visitor-friendly it is, how welcoming and, as a result, how much it has contributed to a revived interest in Classical and ancient history.
“We are trying to explain to people that here are the sources of world history,” says Pantermalis. “Imitation from Hellenistic Roman times all the way to the Renaissance and European Classicism distorted the meaning of the Classics. The Classic was misunderstood as something rigid, almost incompatible with present-day reality. A Classical age that does not hum with life is not really Classical. Therefore, encouraging people to see the original pieces once more is a contribution to global culture and it is also very important that so much has been salvaged from the Classical age.”
On Greece’s request for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum in London, Pantermalis says that it is a extremely complex and ultimately political issue.
“By illustrating how the Parthenon sculptures have been torn apart and how the whole would look with their return, we are keeping the public’s interest in the matter keen,” argues Pantermalis. “With an issue that has been ongoing for 200 years, it is important to explain anew every time why it is worth the effort. The discreet way in which we have chosen to present the issue has a bigger effect on public opinion than outrage.”
Pantermalis mentions comments made in February by Hollywood actor George Clooney, who came out in favor of the Marbles’ return.
“George Clooney’s statement hit at the heart of the matter. The argument regarding their ownership undermines the real issue, which is the integrity of the dismembered sculptures,” says Pantermalis.