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The Old Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece:
An Overdue Necrology

Since its well-publicized inauguration in 2009, the New Acropolis Museum has received mixed reviews by scholars and critics. This paper is a response to the lack of attention to the dismantling of the permanent exhibition of the Old Acropolis Museum, an important museological artifact of postwar Greece. It delineates a biography of this museum, focusing on its various reincarnations since 1874 and, most importantly, on the installation by archaeologist Giannes Meliades (1895–1975) from 1954 to 1964. Meliades, Ephor of the Acropolis from 1941 to 1961, held that his installation was in-and-of-itself a work of art of its own times, rich in aesthetic claims and epistemological implications. It is therefore imperative to remember and analyze Meliades’s artifact, even as we inquire into what precisely was lost when the Old Acropolis Museum was dismantled. This analysis is premised on the notion that a museum is a relational nexus, whose dismantling may have wider implications for viewers, visitors, scholars, and artifacts.

What was lost when the Old Acropolis Museum on the Athenian Acropolis was dismantled? What is at stake when old and respectable museums such as this reach the end of their lives? In 2007, the Old Acropolis Museum was decommissioned without pomp or ceremony. Its closing marked the end of a long era, as well as a radical change in the museological presentation of the Acropolis and its monuments. Since 2009, the critical attention of both experts and the wider public has been monopolized by the New Acropolis Museum, Athens’s new gem down the hill, and duly so (Filler 2009; Cohen 2010; Caskey 2011). To my knowledge, there is only one very brief article addressing the significance and history of the Old Acropolis Museum. This was authored by Professor Michalis Tiverios and appeared as an op-ed contribution in the Greek daily To Vima on 28 June 2009, a month after the flamboyant inauguration of the New Acropolis Museum (Tiverios 2009).1 To this day, the Old Acropolis Museum lacks a formal scholarly history, and the same is more or less the case when it comes to the history of the curation and exhibition of the Acropolis finds.2 [End Page 1]

In this article, I sketch what I call a belated necrology for this museum. I offer it only as the prolegomenon to a more systematic, in-depth study, as the theme is vast and complex, yet still largely unexplored. As the initial excitement over the New Acropolis Museum dies down, it is necessary to reflect on the Old Acropolis Museum as an integral component of the archaeology of the Acropolis in the last two centuries. My analytical premise is that a museum is a nexus of complex relationships that inextricably bind together a building and its interior space with its contents/artifacts and its historically defined mission and public. If a museum is a dynamic historical artifact that tells a particular story, what is at stake when it comes to an end? This question addresses considerations that pivot around the wider theme of collecting and displaying classical antiquity in modern Greece (Hamilakis 2007; Damaskos and Plantzos 2008). In this discussion, it is of special interest, as the physical setting of the dismantled installation was closely associated with the Parthenon, an icon of Western civilization and the symbol par excellence of national identity in Greece. Moreover, as I argue below, the Old Acropolis Museum installation dismantled in 2007 was a significant artifact in-and-of-itself, the dissolution of which may have entailed the irreversible loss of cultural value. Conceptualized, researched, and painstakingly materialized by classical archaeologist Giannes Meliades (1895–1975), Ephor of the Acropolis from 1941 to 1961, in the second half of the twentieth century, this installation decisively shaped dominant scholarly and lay understandings of votive and architectural sculptures, as well as of the famous monumental buildings surviving on the Acropolis. It is therefore important to historicize it and critically assess it against its proper historical and museological setting.3

A cultural biography of the Old Acropolis Museum

I begin with an outline of the biography of the Old Acropolis Museum as a cultural institution. By necessity, such an account has to take into consideration the actual building of the museum and the exhibition of artifacts that it helped to shelter.

Designed by architect Panagiotis Kalkos (1810–1878), one of the successful practitioners of Athenian architectural neoclassicism, the Old Acropolis Museum opened its doors to the public in 1874.4 It should be viewed more as a response to an urgent practical necessity rather than as the inaugural gesture of a long-term project of archeological management.5 Until the 1860s, all drastic interventions undertaken on the Acropolis were restorative (for example, the restoration of the Nike Temple) or subtractive in nature (for example, the removal of Ottoman-era residential buildings and the mosque in the Parthenon’s cella after 1834). The new building was the first post-revolutionary, modern addition to the Acropolis. As the first museum built by the young Greek [End Page 2] State, it attracted a great deal of attention because of its physical association with the Acropolis monuments (Petrakos 2013, Vol. 2, 217). The construction of this museum had started in 1865 but proceeded very slowly amidst fierce public debates about its presence within the «ιερός» (holy) ground of the Acropolis (Philippides 1996, 303; Tiverios 2009).6 Digging for its foundations brought to light important antiquities, and this complicated the project even more. Kalkos’s building was conceived as a humble, utilitarian construction. Its primary function was to shelter the large number of antiquities that had come to light since the first interventions on the Acropolis in the 1830s. Its plain bulk comprised a simple stereometric form with unembellished facades solidly built with simple stone masonry recalling the vernacular idiom of traditional architecture.

Fig 1. Plan of museum (1874) and annex (1888). From .
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Fig 1.

Plan of museum (1874) and annex (1888). From Kokkou 1977.

From the very beginning, many viewed this building as a necessary evil, a major gravitational anomaly in the purity of classical ruins, disrupting what the famous filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein has described in terms of a powerful film metaphor: “the most perfect example of shot design, change of shot, and shot length … the most perfect example of one of the most ancient films.”7 In this “filmic” sequence, the museum was “edited” out, as its placement and plain architectural form were meant to render it as invisible as possible from both inside and outside the Acropolis. The Parthenon had to stand in splendid and unobstructed isolation, which is why the level of the museum’s flat roof was designed to be below that of the Parthenon’s stylobate (the topmost level of the stepped base of the building). This situation did not change in 1888, when an annex, the so-called Little Museum designed by the German architect Georg Kawerau, was added to the east side of the first building (Figure 1; Kokkou 1977, 200). Its purpose was to expand the existing exhibition space following the great Acropolis excavations conducted by Panagiotis Kavvadias, Ephor-General of Antiquities, from 1885 to 1890 (Kavvadias and Kawerau 1906). On [End Page 3] this occasion, Kavvadias also undertook the first major reorganization of the exhibition inside the main museum building. The great sculptural masterpieces were put on display in the main building, whereas artifacts considered of minor importance ended up in the Little Museum, which was also used for storage.8

Fig 2. Plan of galleries of 1874 museum. From .
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Fig 2.

Plan of galleries of 1874 museum. From Milchhöfer 1881.

The nature of exhibition in these early stages of the original Acropolis Museum is elusive today. One has few photographs or scholarly descriptive catalogs to work with in order to reconstruct the content and ambience of the museum galleries (Milchhöfer 1881, 52–62; von Sybel 1881, 339–387). In its early incarnations, the Old Acropolis Museum doubled as storage and exhibition space for numerous artifacts found exclusively inside the Acropolis. It was largely a museum of sculpture and inscriptions arranged in loose chronological order, with votive and architectural sculptures in Galleries I to VI and a large number of inscriptions in Galleries VII to X (Figure 2).

The layout of space, flow of movement, and presentation schemes were all typical of display practices prevalent in Europe and Greece until World War II. In this age of positivism, display modes favored linearity, paratactic arrangements, and overcrowding (Gazi 1994; Hamilakis 2007, 48). The sculpture galleries were tightly packed with sculptures in all states of preservation, with the most prominent pieces placed against walls painted in dark Pompeian reds for emphasis and stressed contrast. The museum also contained heavy wooden display cases with numerous small-size items locked behind glass windows. Lack of space was a problem from the beginning. As Maria Brouskari put it, “the works of art were stifled by being jammed together, sometimes even on top of one another” (Brouskari 1974, 14). [End Page 4]

The most important gallery was dedicated to the Parthenon. It was located in the middle of the well-lit south side of the building, easily and quickly accessed from the entrance; it also was the most architecturally embellished, as it featured two Ionic columns in antis that underscored the dignity and exceptionality of the Parthenon gallery.9 In this grand room, the display combined original architectural sculptures with plaster casts of the pedimental and frieze sculptures located in the British Museum.10 It is surprising to us today that in the first decade of its operation, it was customary to restore missing parts of statues and reliefs in plaster. When Kavvadias took over the reorganization of the museum in the 1880s, this problematic practice was abandoned. These restorations were often aesthetically motivated, archaeologically incorrect, and technically deficient. They also caused irreversible damage to the original parts of sculptures. Guy Dickins, who published a formal catalog of the Archaic Sculptures in 1912, exclaimed with relief: “One cannot feel too grateful that the old habit of restoration in plaster was for the most part abandoned” (Dickins 1912, 4).

Scholars have recently pointed out that in the nineteenth century the Acropolis was conceptualized and configured as a site of pilgrimage, a holy ground epitomizing the prevailing national ideology and its aesthetic, moral, and cultural precepts (Gazi 1994; Philippides 1996; Yalouri 2001; Gazi 2008). Despite its perceived awkwardness and physical incongruity, the Old Acropolis Museum became an indispensable appendage to this sacred landscape. Difficult as it may seem, I propose to think of it as a precious reliquary intended to showcase the products of archaeologists’ efforts to restore the sanctuary back to its ancient splendor. No less than the famous architectural masterpieces of the Acropolis rock, these remnants of antiquity inside the museum were perceived as holy and therefore could only be appropriately experienced within the boundaries of Athena’s sacred temenos. Andromache Gazi has aptly pointed out that the first generation of Greek museums presented displays aimed at “creating feelings of reverence rather than appreciation” (1994, 65). This effect must have been at its highest inside the Old Acropolis Museum. Shadowed as it was by the overwhelming presence of the Parthenon and the other classical monuments, the Old Acropolis Museum offered its contents for pilgrimage, wonder, and study.11

In its role as the most prominent museum of the new country, the museum also functioned as a showplace for the discoveries and achievements of the Greek Archaeological Service. Its space brought together the archaeological activity of both Greek and non-Greek scholars in a formative period of Greek archaeology (Dickins 1912). It was in this period of the museum that the painstaking work of understanding, joining together, restoring, and presenting important sculptural groups took place following the great excavations by Kavvadias and Kawerau from 1885 to 1990 (Kavvadias and Kawerau 1906).12 The [End Page 5] museological dimensions of this enterprise cannot be assessed here in detail, but I wish to stress that it was in this period that the origin of important presentation schemes can be traced. I would mention, for example, the semicircular arrangement of the famous korai, originally displayed behind glass against a plain dark wall (Gazi 2008, 74, Figure 7). The scheme was arbitrary, but its decorative orderliness was so influential in suggesting a view of the original display of the korai on the Acropolis, that it was reverently retained by Meliades after World War II.13 It was emphatically abandoned in the New Acropolis Museum, but its significance cannot be emphasized enough.14

Fig 3. Karantinos plan (1948–1953). From .
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Fig 3.

Karantinos plan (1948–1953). From Kokkou 1977.

A decision to expand or replace the original museum complex was made as early as 1914 (Kokkou 1977, 200). However, the two World Wars, continuous political turmoil, and the devastating Greek Civil War (1946–1949) got in the way, and the project did not gain traction until 1953. Following a long established practice of the Greek Archaeological Service, the archaeologist Meliades, by then a member of the Greek Archaeological Service since 1919, directed the project as Ephor of the Acropolis. The so-called Little Museum and the eastern part of the original museum were demolished, and the original core of the museum building was radically refurbished by modernist architect Patroklos Karantinos (Yiakoumatos 1997), employee in the technical services of the Greek Ministry of Education from 1946 to 1958.15 To serve Meliades’s vision for the new installation, the refurbished building contained fewer galleries than before, but these were significantly larger. More windows were added, while the existing windows were widened. The project also included the creation of office and storage space below the ground level west of the museum’s entrance.

Carefully observing the minimalist formal principles established by Kalkos in the nineteenth century, Karantinos’s refurbishment resulted in the self-effacing building that now stands empty on the southeast corner of the [End Page 6]

Fig 4. View of the Old Acropolis Museum building from the eastern stylobate of the Parthenon. June 27, 2014.<br/><br/>Photo by author.
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Fig 4.

View of the Old Acropolis Museum building from the eastern stylobate of the Parthenon. June 27, 2014.

Photo by author.

[End Page 7]

Acropolis (Figures 34). The exterior of this plain building retained numerous elements introduced by Kalkos in the nineteenth century. Visible to this day is its unarticulated, yet neatly built western façade of exposed stone masonry bound with mortar. A tall porch with four square pillars and a heavy flat roof accentuates the entrance while imparting gravitas to its elegant simplicity (Figure 3). Its austere morphology clearly signals the systematic avoidance of any element reminiscent of the architectural vocabulary of the famous classical monuments nearby. The building offers itself to the visitor as purely functional, and its low positioning prevents its appreciation as a free-standing, three-dimensional structure.

The long and difficult task of preservation, study, and reinstallation of the Acropolis artworks in the museum’s refurbished galleries has not received as much attention as the post-World War II resurrection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (Mouliou 2008). Meliades had a deep knowledge of the Acropolis and its monuments. He had witnessed the abuse of its space during the German occupation, and he had struggled against intentional or unintentional vandalism in the museum when a British garrison was stationed inside it during a period of violent civil crisis from December 1944 to January 1945 (Petrakos 2013, Vol. 1, 315–321, 378–400). In his reinstallation project, Meliades was assisted by a group of young archaeologists, including Maria Brouskari, as well as a group of experienced sculptors, such as Dimitris Demetriades, Kostas Moulos, and Dimitris Perakis (Brouskari 1974, 15).

After the end of World War II, the resuscitation of the museum proceeded at a very slow pace. In the beginning, the project evolved without much progress during a difficult period of civil war, restricted resources, and obstacles, such as Meliades’s arrest and exile to Libya in the spring of 1945, his brief return and reassignment to his position, and his resignation from the Archaeological Service (1947–1951). During the war, most of the famous sculptures from the Acropolis lay hidden in crates placed behind or underneath concrete in various locations, such as the ground underneath the museum, four trenches north of the Parthenon, the ground below the National Archaeological Museum, and the caves around the Acropolis and surrounding hills. Only very heavy pieces, such as the pedimental poros sculptures of the Archaic period, remained in place inside the museum and were covered with sandbags (Brouskari 1974, 15; Petrakos 2012, 92–93).16 After the war, the rehabilitation of the antiquities inside the museum was demanding, arduous, and complex. The concealed crates with antiquities had to be unearthed and transferred to the museum, after which each piece had to be carefully assessed for its correct identification and integrity. Special attention was given to damages due to either biological causes (for example, molds or stains on the surface of the sculptures caused by the decayed wood of the crates) or breakages and cracking during their [End Page 8] transportation and interment.17 The delicate task of conservation and restoration of almost all sculptures followed, wherein Meliades discovered that old restorations of architectural or other sculptures had caused considerable harm and required systematic treatment before their reinstallation inside the museum. Consequently, old joined pieces had to be taken apart for the removal of rusted iron clamps that had to be replaced with more durable materials. Moreover, Meliades’s team scrutinized old joints between fragments and proposed new and more correct restorations of architectural sculptures, incorporating newly found fragments (Meliades 1961, 301–303).18 This experience was at the core of Meliades’s strong views and initial strategies concerning the deterioration of the standing architectural monuments of the Acropolis (Propylaia, Nike Temple, Erechtheion, and Parthenon), which was partly caused by the usage of iron for clamps and the restoration of architectural members in wrong positions, as in the case of the Parthenon’s northern colonnade (Bouras 1985–1986). In 1961, Meliades retired as Ephor of the Acropolis, but he remained committed to his project and to the preservation of the Acropolis monuments for many years. The reinstallation project was not completed until 1964. Despite major modifications (for example, the removal of the Karyatids to the museum in the late 1970s), its nature remained largely unchanged until the dismantling of the museum installation in 2007.

The museological principles of Meliades’s installation

Meliades belonged to a generation of Greek archaeologists with a solid classical education and an awareness of art historical and museological developments in the post-World War II period.19 His intellectual formation included graduate studies in Munich, Vienna, and Berlin before World War II. A creative and respected man of letters since his youth, he actively participated in progressive literary movements in the interwar period and continued to publish poetry, essays, and criticism of art and literature until the end of his life.20 Equally important was his friendship with eminent archaeologists Christos Karouzos and Semni Karouzou, leftist intellectuals who undertook the parallel and equally daunting task of resurrecting the National Archaeological Museum in Athens after the war (Karouzou 1967; Petrakos 1995; Mouliou 2008). Meliades also shared the same political ideology as the Karouzos. Their socially progressive ideas, a source of trouble for all three of them in the politically repressive post-World War II period in Greece, underlie their views on the social function of art and its transformative power.21 Both Karouzos and Meliades were against the hegemony of the Greek archaeological enterprise by conservative intellectual elites, such as university professors. They published widely in non-specialized media to inform and sensitize the wider public about antiquity and its art (Petrakos 1995; Papakostas 2012).22 [End Page 9]

Meliades formulated and published a clear set of museological principles that guided his conception of the new installation. His writings are not plentiful, but they succinctly convey his philosophy and his methods (Zygos 1956, 10, 20; Meliades 1957, 1959, 1961, 1962, and 1965). He was fully conscious that the museum was meant to cater not only to specialists but also to the needs of diverse audiences, such as the increasing numbers of laymen, including tourists, whose numbers grew steadily during the late fifties and early sixties. His fundamental premise was to make a categorical distinction between an art museum and an educational museum of history and culture.23 For Meliades, the Old Acropolis Museum was programmatically a pure art museum, in which all exhibited artifacts were masterpieces displayed according to their own authentic character in order to facilitate, as he put it, “communication with art achieved not through knowledge but through aesthetic enjoyment” (Meliades 1959, 3).24

According to these principles, his installation was minimalistic, avoiding anything that could distract the visitor’s attention and scrutiny of the exhibited works (Figure 5). Artifacts were arranged in temporal progression, sometimes in groupings suggesting affinities of style, quality, and authorship. Meliades and his team took care to indicate the architectural nature of many sculptures (for example, pedimental compositions placed in triangular arrangements and modern frames or the remnants of the Erechtheion frieze displayed against a background of dark Eleusis marble as in the original building), and they went so far as to accommodate cumbersome, yet didactic, reconstructions of lost architecture in the spacious galleries of the converted museum building (Figure 6). Rooms were not crowded, and arrangements were simple and elegant, avoiding monotonous, paratactic arrangements, as well as “the perspective projection of one piece on another” (Meliades 1959, 3; see also Meliades 1957, 638). Meliades was particularly sensitive about the composition of space and flow of movement in each gallery (Meliades 1961, 303–304). He saw to it that every sculptural piece (relief or free-standing work) had its own individual and unobstructed space. He therefore inserted smaller vertical walls as backdrops or partition walls in order to accentuate the focus on particular artworks or to emphasize juxtapositions or affinities among them. A good example is the backdrop behind the famous Moschophoros (Acropolis Museum, inv. no. 624; Meliades 1965, 17) and the oldest kore (Acropolis Museum, inv. no. 593; Meliades 1965, 18) at the east end of Gallery II. The Moschophoros faced west, dominating the central axis of Galleries I and II, in which architectural sculptures predominated. The kore, on the other hand, faced east towards the transitory Gallery III and Gallery IV, where the majority of the korai were displayed in various arrangements. This scheme takes into account both the micro-space of these works and the overarching narratives in the entire museum.25 [End Page 10]

Fig 5. View of Gallery VIII in Old Acropolis Museum. From .
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Fig 5.

View of Gallery VIII in Old Acropolis Museum. From Meliades 1959.

[End Page 11]

Fig 6. Reconstruction of a doric entablature in Gallery III of Old Acropolis Museum (Inv. 4503: Building “A”, second quarter of the 6th c. BCE). June 3, 2007.<br/><br/>Photo by author.
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Fig 6.

Reconstruction of a doric entablature in Gallery III of Old Acropolis Museum (Inv. 4503: Building “A”, second quarter of the 6th c. BCE). June 3, 2007.

Photo by author.

[End Page 12]

Meliades also gave particular scrutiny to the thorny problem of lighting sculptural works originally intended to be perceived under the ambient light of the Attic sky. His scheme avoided spot lighting and the sensational effects of previous eras. Instead, smooth lighting conditions were achieved through the combination of natural and artificial light. Windows were covered with opaline panes that filtered in and evenly diffused natural light. Likewise, specially designed ceiling reflectors replicated the tonality of the natural sunlight.26 Moreover, the interpretation of the finds in labels and wall texts was kept to a minimum, as the visitor was meant to look and admire rather than become immersed in a more complex learning experience. For Meliades, the works of art were endowed with inherent qualities that visitors would somehow experience by the simple act of sensory immersion in the environment of the museum. Likewise, this intense experience fulfilled the highly pedagogical function of the museum because, as Meliades put it, visitors cultivated “their mind and their spirit” (Meliades 1959, 3).

Meliades worked with care, attention to detail, sensitivity, and a deep archaeological understanding of the Acropolis sculptures. Like Christos Karouzos and Semni Karouzou in the National Archaeological Museum, Meliades put his own personal stamp on the post-World War II organization of the Old Acropolis Museum. His own words in an article published in the UNESCO-sponsored museological journal Museum speak to the very personal character of his preoccupation with the Old Acropolis Museum:

But we must not forget that a museum is in fact a prison, particularly as it contains works such as those of Greek sculpture that call for light, since they were made to stand in the open air where alone their beauty can be fully realized. This prison however can be camouflaged into a shelter with patience, good taste, and respect for the objects themselves, by the intelligent use of technical means. Thus we arrive at the useful conclusion that a museum is at the same time a work of science and a work of art. In re-establishing the Acropolis Museum our greatest concern was to follow the aim that seemed most important to us—the aesthetic one.

Meliades’s conception of the museum as a “work of science and a work of art” discloses an important but hitherto overlooked dimension of his work and approach.27 On the one hand, by “science,” Meliades refers not only to the scholarly knowledge, that is, the archaeological and art historical expertise, of himself and his associates; he also references an entire spectrum of specialized theoretical and technical knowledge usually implicated in the handling of archaeological artifacts, such as their preservation, restoration, interpretation, and display. His published writings and interviews illuminate the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of every step taken in the reinstallation project. They also make manifest the experimental method inherent [End Page 13] in determining the most effective way of installing sculptural works in an artificial, enclosed environment.28 Meliades, for example, is explicit about his positive, yet not altogether smooth, collaboration with architect Patroklos Karantinos, to whom he refers as an “inspired artist” constrained by a vision and intentions that differed from those of the archaeologist/museum curator (Meliades 1957, 19). Meliades also refers with pride to his fruitful collaboration with expressionist painter Giorgos Bouzianes (1885–1959) regarding the determination of the innovative color scheme on the walls of the museum galleries (Zygos 1956, 10, 20).29

On the other hand, Meliades’s reference to the museum as a “work of art” is not a rhetorical gimmick. Rather, it is a genuine expression of his idea of the museum installation as an autonomous artwork subject to the philosophical, moral, and aesthetic claims that Western culture usually makes for everything classified as art. Meliades understood very well that the setting up of ancient works of sculpture in a twentieth-century museum was a compromising act of translation that could very easily falsify their originally intended plastic nature. To avoid the creation of false effects in an artificial museum context, Meliades explains that “patience, good taste, and respect for the objects themselves, by the intelligent use of technical means” need to be put to work as best as possible. This is a rather dense formulation of his guiding principle, but its implications are clear: fully conscious of the constructedness of the museum installation (the arbitrariness of the relations of works never intended to be seen “imprisoned” in a museum setting), the curator orchestrates a “symphony” of subtle relations among numerous disparate elements—color, spatial arrangements and composition, natural and artificial lighting, the plastic values of the sculptural works, the physical devices for their set up (for example, the materials of stands), and, not least of all, the didactic props that provide context and interpretation. Like an orchestra conductor directing the interpretation of a complex piece of music, the curator artfully combines these elements to create an atmosphere in which the best qualities of the works are projected outwards and can be sensed by visitors.30 In other words, the complex display of works is an artistic gesture, the materialization of a curator’s vision doubling as an artistic statement. A detailed museographical analysis of Meliades’s delicate and well-studied scenography may not necessarily corroborate his conception of it as an “artistic gesture.” It will nevertheless disclose the minutiae of his installation scheme and its function.

Greece and the world lost something important when the Old Acropolis Museum was dismantled. Museum exhibitions and installations are usually ephemeral and subject to constant change. But an argument may be made about the exceptionality of the Old Acropolis Museum and its contents as assembled, conserved, interpreted, and presented by Ioannis Meliades. There are two main reasons for this: [End Page 14]

1. Meliades’s installation as a period piece

Meliades conceived of a philosophy of action and a set of aesthetic principles that he applied with the rigor and discipline of a scientist and the sensitivity of an artist. No matter how outdated his aestheticist ideas may seem today, there is consensus, in Greece at least, that his work was commensurate with the cultural significance of the Acropolis artifacts.31 His work resulted in an important museological artifact, a period piece that conditioned understandings of Ancient Greek art for half a century. Both inside and outside of Greece, scholars and the wider public are still bedazzled by the New Acropolis Museum, and this is why they have not yet realized the loss constituted by the dismantling of this important historic artifact in 2007.

2. Meliades’s installation as a healing ground

As a period piece, the reinstallation of the Old Acropolis Museum after World War II and the debilitating Greek Civil War may be seen as the “material landmark” par excellence in the continuous formation and negotiation of the topos of the Greek nation.32 Viewed from this perspective, the Old Acropolis Museum epitomized the efforts of a deeply wounded nation to heal itself by reconstituting its aesthetic excellence in the heterotopic micro-universe of the most prominent site of the country. Foucault sees heterotopias as “real places … a kind of enacted Utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”33 Resurrected from the ashes of a tremendously destabilizing crisis, the Old Acropolis Museum enshrined the aspirations of the dominant cultural and political forces in Greece about its role in the post-World War II world: a symbolic leader of a Western world rooted in the aesthetic, moral, and ideological legacy of Greece’s classical past. Having come to light after years of concealment and dormancy, the splendor of the sculptural masterpieces provided a radiant and tangible foil to the actual and metaphorical ruins of post-Civil War Greece. Their orderly presentation in a smooth, progressive narrative towards classical perfection (for example, of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Nike Temple) contested perceptions of defeat, cultural regression, social rupture, and national self-image. Its intentionally fascinating optimism embodied an uncontestable model of cultural poetics for right and left, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, layman and specialist, Greece and the world. It is precisely this poetics that has continuously informed the great ongoing project of conservation and restoration of the Acropolis monuments since the 1970s (YSMA, n.d.). [End Page 15]

Conclusion: A proposal

Since 2009, the Old Acropolis Museum building has been awaiting a formal repurposing. In January 2013, the Central Archaeological Council along with the Council overseeing Modern and Contemporary Monuments in Greece decided not to declare this building a διατηρητέο μνημείο (historic monument worthy of preservation). There were numerous strong reactions against this view on several grounds.34 Despite its unassuming character, the building is a monument no less worthy of attention and preservation than any other material intervention on the Acropolis. In January 2015, the Museums Council of Greece resolved that the old building be used for special exhibits, such as the history of the important preservation and restoration work on the Acropolis since the 1970s and the exhibition of inscriptions and architectural members with color decoration from the Acropolis, as well as for other public functions (for example, workshops in which visitors can observe craftsmen trained in traditional marble-carving techniques at work for the restoration of the Acropolis buildings).35

The current article proposes that the building should also be used to accommodate a permanent exhibition of the museological history of the Acropolis, of which the museum itself has played an integral part. In this way, visitors could place the New Acropolis Museum in a broader perspective that connects it to the modern history of the site and helps relativize its exhibition practices. A new exhibition could provide a survey of the display of antiquities on the Acropolis from the foundation of the Acropolis as an archaeological site in the 1830s to Meliades’s post-World War II installation.36 This phase is a quintessential part of the life of all antiquities found on the Acropolis, and its detailed museological treatment would showcase the efforts of preservation, curation, research, and understanding that resulted in the wonders that one enjoys inside the New Acropolis Museum. This is a story of humans interacting with world-famous antiquities to fulfill a culturally laden vision of antiquity at its best.

The Old Acropolis Museum was a cultural institution, the importance of which is commensurate with any other human intervention on the Athenian Acropolis. As long as Kalkos’s and Karantinos’s Old Acropolis Museum building stands on the Acropolis, it will always function as a strong monumental reminder of an important phase in the modern history of the Acropolis and its artifacts. This phase should be actively preserved as an object of study and reflection. [End Page 16]

Nassos Papalexandrou
University of Texas at Austin


I am grateful to my colleague Louis Waldman, who invited me to present an early version of this article at the Inaugural Museum Studies symposium (titled Transforming Museum Spaces) at the Blanton Museum of the University of Texas at Austin on 29 March 2014. I presented an improved version of this original paper at the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, New Orleans, in January 2015. On both occasions, academic audiences responded positively to my switching of the focus of scholarly attention to the old museum on the Acropolis and its history. I thank them all for their encouragement and insights. Amy Papal-exandrou, Glenn Peers, and Vanessa Rousseau offered valuable criticism and suggestions. I owe special thanks to the editors and anonymous reviewers of JMGS, especially to Artemis Leontis for her valuable feedback, insights, and editorial acumen. I take full responsibility for all errors and omissions.


1. Tiverios 2009 provides a synoptic overview of the original building and the public debates before, during, and after its construction in the period 1863–1874. He continues with a very brief account of the subsequent evolution of this museum until its latest incarnation in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Tiverios’s view is that practical necessity dictated the building of a large new museum outside the Acropolis; consequently, those who in the nineteenth century had argued that a museum building was incompatible with the Acropolis were justified by the building of the New Acropolis Museum.

2. Based on archival research, Angeliki Kokkou includes a substantial but brief account of the Old Acropolis Museum (Kokkou 1977, 195–201). The nature of the original exhibition and those until World War II has hardly been touched in scholarship, even though museologists Andromache Gazi and Marlen Mouliou have published valuable contributions (Gazi 2008, 67–82; Mouliou 2008, 83–109, especially 89).

3. Some have argued that the building should be demolished altogether. I side with those who view it as a historical monument that should be preserved and repurposed to serve hitherto neglected aspects of the museological presentation of the Acropolis. Vasileios Petrakos has given a brief account of the debate during the period 2009–2013 (Petrakos 2013, Vol. 1, 691–692).

4. Kalkos was educated in Bavaria (Munich). He also contributed accomplished architectural drawings (for example, that of the Erechtheion) to publications by Greek archaeologists (Petrakos 2013, Vol. 1, 138); Eleni Bastéa refers to him as “the most classical of the classicists” (2000, 190); in the same vein, see Tzonis and Rodi 2013, 29–31.

5. The museum project was implemented under the supervision of Ephor-General Panagiotis Eustratiades (Petrakos 2013, Vol. 1, 167; Petrakos 2013, Vol. 2, 18–19).

6. On the perceived sacredness of the Acropolis, see Gazi 1994, 2008; Yalouri 2001, 137–186; Hamilakis 2007.

7. Quoted and discussed in Hurwit 1999, 301. Hurwit rightly stresses that almost everything that contemporary visitors encounter on the Athenian Acropolis (Eisenstein’s “montage sequence for an architectural ensemble”) is the product of human action in the last two centuries.

8. Lack of space dictated that portable finds, such as those made of bronze, were transferred to the National Archaeological Museum (De Ridder 1896).

9. Immediately after the opening of the museum, one anonymous commentator criticized the poor lighting conditions, the very low positioning of the frieze (“so that one has to kneel down in order to see them”), and the coexistence of original architectural sculptures of the Parthenon with plaster casts of the Elgin marbles (AION 1874, 4).

10. This room also contained plaster casts of the Parthenon’s architectural sculptures in the British Museum since 1816. These casts were presented by the British Museum to the Archaeological Society of Athens in 1847 (Gazi 1998, 28; Petrakos 2013, Vol. 1, 115–118). [End Page 17]

11. Gazi quotes a characteristic example of this attitude in the words of George Toudouze, editor of the journal Musée (Gazi 2008, 74).

12. Many of these restorations were incomplete or wrong, and the use of iron for joints was technically detrimental for sculptures in marble or poros stone (Meliades 1961; Meliades 1962, 636–637).

13. As Gazi has shown, museum displays in this period were dominated by ornamental effects based on symmetrical displays and hierarchies of scale and pattern. These modes signaled the state’s control and imposition of order over the newly constituted cultural patrimony (Gazi 2008).

14. There is no evidence regarding the original set up of the korai and other free-standing sculptures inside the Acropolis. The scheme chosen in the New Acropolis Museum allows circumambulation of free-standing sculptures and multiple comparisons. On the history of museological dimensions of ancient sculpture, see Siapkas and Sjögren 2014.

15. Karantinos is an important figure of interwar architectural developments in Greece both as a private practitioner and as an employee for the Greek state, for which he specialized in public school architecture, museums (for example, the Herakleion Archaeological Museum), and various urban projects. He was against the existence of a modern museum building on the Acropolis, which is why he was not particularly eager to be involved in this project (Yiakoumatos 1997, 143). Meliades, on the other hand, was in favor of showcasing the antiquities inside the Acropolis (Meliades 1959, 2).

16. Photographer Dmitri Kessel captured the awkward symbiosis between these pedimental sculptures and the British soldiers stationed inside the Museum in December 1944 (Kessell 1994, 176–177, Figures 92–94).

17. Meliades stresses that the conservation did not use chemical agents to remove stains or rust marks. The team relied exclusively on exposure to sunlight and the use of water (Meliades 1961, 300).

18. A characteristic example is the composition of the Late Archaic gigantomachy pedimental sculptures in marble (Meliades 1965, 32–34; Brouskari 1974, 76–77).

19. Meliades’s intellectual personality is multidimensional, but it has not preoccupied scholars perhaps as much as it should have. Unlike his illustrious colleague and friend Christos Karouzos, Meliades did not publish a large number of archaeological articles. He viewed himself as a socially minded, public intellectual and published extensively literary and art criticism of contemporary works. The dismantling of the post-World War II reinstallation of the Old Acropolis Museum, his major contribution, will render Meliades’s assessment in scholarship even more difficult in the future. Papakostas offers a substantive outline of his vita (Papakostas 2012, 21–134); see also brief discussions in Petrakos 1995, 208, n125; Petrakos 2012, Vol. 2, 42–43). Meliades’s archive (as Ιωάννης Μηλιάδης) resides now at ELIA (Ελληνικό Λογοτεχνικό και Ιστορικό Αρχείο) in Athens.

20. Giannes Papakostas has selected and published a good number of Meliades’s literary studies and essays of literary criticism or social activism, although the volume excludes his pieces on contemporary art criticism (Papakostas 2012).

21. Mark Mazower presents an overview of this difficult period, which was dominated by what he calls a “right-wing terror” (Mazower 2000, 6). As Alexander Kazamias has shown, in the late forties and during the fifties, the dominant right-wing regimes promoted a new normative definition of national identity («εθνικοφροσύνη»), premised on the cult of the nation’s roots in classical antiquity (Kazamias 2014). In the destructively polarizing atmosphere of post-liberation Greece, Meliades, who had actively participated in the resistance, found himself in a particularly compromising position.

22. Meliades’s Concise Guide to the Acropolis Museum, a publication of the Service of Antiquities and Restoration, exemplifies Meliades’s concise and lucid style of archaeological writing for laymen (Meliades 1965). Meliades also published profusely in left-leaning publications, such as the periodicals Zygos and Epitheorisi Technis. [End Page 18]

23. This important distinction was also of fundamental importance for Christos Karouzos, the foremost theorist of art in post-World War II Greece (Karouzos 1981, 137–139). The intellectual interaction and mutual cross-fertilization of the two intellectuals is an important subject that needs systematic investigation.

24. Meliades admitted that his views were iconoclastic (that is, contrary to directives sent by international organizations) but defended them on the principle that the “[h]istory of art can be taught. But the enjoyment of a work of art cannot be taught, but it is provoked by means which are directed to the spirit and not to the intelligence” (Meliades 1961, 306).

25. A full and detailed museographic analysis cannot be undertaken in the context of this brief article.

26. Meliades’s extensive comments on lighting of sculptures inside museums illuminate his insights on the specific problems presented by the museum building, his views on contemporary museum practices, and his knowledge of the technical dimensions of lighting in the museum setting (Zygos 1956, 10, 20; Meliades 1957, 20, 75; Meliades 1961, 305–306). His views on these issues parallel those of architect Patroklos Karantinos (Yiakoumatos 1997, 188), but the mutual cross-fertilization of the two men’s ideas cannot be discussed in this brief study.

27. Meliades, who was very careful in composing his prose, uses precisely the same wording in his Greek article published two years earlier: «Ένα σύγχρονο Μουσείο είναι μαζί έργο επιστήμης και τέχνης» (Meliades 1957, 20).

28. For example, see a dense description of this experimental process by Pamela Smart (2010, 1–5). Smart is an anthropologist who in the early nineties observed collector Dominique de Menil curating an important exhibit at the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas. She convincingly shows that curatorship involves much more than technical and art historical expertise.

29. It is important to note that the reinstallation of the Old Acropolis Museum was concurrent with Dimitris Pikionis’s famous landscape project around the Acropolis, in an area under Meliades’s direct jurisdiction (Loukaki 2008, 267–279). The relationships between the two men are worth investigating further.

30. In his writings, Meliades never explicitly refers to the curator as an orchestra conductor. Nevertheless, this metaphor informed his thinking. For example, he talks about “the harmonious composition of a museum gallery. For every gallery of a museum is a symphony in space” (Meliades 1961, 304).

31. Manolis Andronikos’s comments on Meliades’s work express ideas shared widely among groups of archaeologists and art historians in Greece and other countries: “The purity and intensity of these artistic creations [that is, the sculptural works inside the museum] are much enhanced by the manner in which they are presented. Their display to best advantage is due to the painstaking efforts of a scholar of great experience and rare sensitivity—Giannis Meliades” (Andronikos 1991, 68).

32. My thinking is informed by what Yannis Hamilakis calls the “topographic nature of national imagination.” Following Leontis 1995 and Gourgouris 1996, he stresses the role of antiquities as material landmarks in the construction and maintenance of the imaginary topos of the nation (Hamilakis 2007, especially 15–19) that “can be described more as heterotopia” (Hamilakis 2007, 17).

33. Quoted in Hamilakis 2007, 17 (original published in Foucault 1986).

34. For example, in a special press release (18 January 2013) signed by Myrto Despotide and Michalis Tzaras, the Panhellenic Union of Architects protests this decision in dramatic tones. Equally clear is the disagreement by the Hellenic ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites). In a personal communication by e-mail message on 10 January 2015, Dr. Athanasios Nakasis, Dr. Vasileios Palantzas, and Dr. Kyriakos Psaroudakis expressed the ICOMOS’s “concern about the building’s fate.”

35. The proposal was put forward for discussion by Sophia Moschonessiotou and Stelios Daskalakis of the Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Athens. The Directorate [End Page 19] of Museum of the Greek Ministry of Culture (YPPO) approved this proposal on 15 January 2015. The proposal was also approved by the central Museums Council of the Ministry (www.naftemporiki.gr 2015). In a letter dated 15 September 2015, Sophia Moschonessiotou kindly informed me that “currently the Ephorate of Antiquities of Athens is researching for options for the funding of the project.”

36. Kokkou calls attention to the display of antiquities inside the Acropolis monuments (for example, the Parthenon, reconstructed Nike Temple, Propylaia, Pinakotheke), in cisterns, and in an Ottoman-era house immediately south of the Erechtheion (Kokkou 1977, 161–170). There is ample photographic documentation of this stage (for example, Lyons et al. 2005, 174, Figure 9 [Nike Temple]; 183, Figure 15 [Parthenon steps]).


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