A vision never realized; an opportunity lost

The polemics that have broken out over the way the National Archaeological Museum is being renovated has struck at the heart of a vision that has never been realized. Given the inadequacy of the nation’s top museum, not only regarding infrastructure (for example, ventilation, sales outlets, toilets, outdoor areas), obvious to the public and experts for the last 25 years, there is a pressing need for solutions. What is happening now, just a few months before the Olympic Games, is simply a stop-gap solution and not the implementation of what one would expect for an internationally known museum. The National Archaeological Museum is Athens’s version of the Louvre or the Prado. It is the repository of the nation’s heritage and of ancient Greek art in the land where it was born. Athens is on the international map of great museums chiefly because of the National Archaeological Museum. It is self-evident that any society would seek to achieve the highest specifications for such a treasure house. Last summer the Architects’ Association protested the way the renovation work was being carried out, not on the basis of museology but simply to meet the needs of the contractors fitting the old building out with air-conditioning and other modern infrastructure. Work was brought to a halt and later restarted with other specifications at the last minute. The inability to implement an architectural and museological vision reflecting a different quality of urban culture in Athens reveals the lack of any fundamental strategy, perhaps due to the museum’s stifling dependency on the Culture Ministry (there is not much leeway for independent policy as is possible with the great museums abroad that bear the stamp of the personality and the choices of their directors), as well as the general loss of prestige architecture has experienced in Greece, along with the negative associations resulting from a lack of respect for the results of architectural competitions. Holding an international architectural competition, which should have been self-evident for the renovation of the National Archaeological Museum, would have established a clear framework for the winning design. It would have established from the outset the philosophy for the restoration and the new exhibition format. However, this was not only not done, but was changed as work progressed. It is more than certain that the proclamation of an international architectural competition (after the 1999 earthquake) would have attracted strong interest from leading architectural teams in Greece and abroad and would have put Athens at the middle of an international debate on crucial issues of urban reconstruction. After all, bringing a 19th century museum into the fabric of modern cities is an issue that has been debated since the 1960s and which each generation has interpreted in a different way. In Athens, a provincial attitude is being used at the last minute to make basic renovations to part of an old building without providing any solutions to its future. The ambitious plan to renovate the country’s top museum, which could have provided Athens with an architectural work of the highest standard, appropriate for the 21st century, has degenerated into bickering between mechanical engineers and contractors as to whether the air-conditioning system will be adequate for the summer of 2004. Athens has missed another opportunity to rise to the occasion as a capital on the international cultural map.

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