Fodor's Greek Islands
Benaki Museum Review
Greece's oldest private museum received a spectacular face-lift in 2004, just before the Athens Olympics, with the addition of a hyper-modern wing that looks like it was airlifted in from New York City. Located on the gentrifying Pireos Street, this construction is all the more striking when compared to the main museum, set in an imposing neoclassic mansion in the posh Kolonaki neighbourhood. Established in 1926 by an illustrious Athenian family, the Benaki was one of the first to place emphasis on Greece's later heritage at a time when many archaeologists were destroying Byzantine artifacts to access ancient objects. The permanent collection (more than 20,000 items are on display in 36 rooms, and that's only a sample of the holdings) moves chronologically from the ground floor upward, from prehistory to the formation of the modern Greek state. You might see anything from a 5,000-year-old hammered gold bowl to an austere Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary to Lord Byron's pistols to the Nobel medals awarded to poets George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Some exhibits are just plain fun—the re-creation of a Kozani (Macedonian town) living room; a tableau of costumed mannequins; a Karaghiozi shadow puppet piloting a toy plane—all contrasted against the marble and crystal-chandelier grandeur of the Benaki home. The mansion that serves as the main building of the museum was designed by Anastassios Metaxas, the architect who helped restore the Panathenaic Stadium. The Benaki's gift shop, a destination in itself, tempts with exquisitely reproduced ceramics and jewelry. The second-floor café serves coffee and snacks, with a few daily specials, on a generous veranda overlooking the National Garden.
The eye-knocking new Benaki museum wing is located at 138 Pireos Street, one of the busiest and most industrially developed city axis. The minimalistic exterior is covered in smooth pink stone—a kind of beacon of modernity, clean lines, and creativity on the dusty, loud avenue. Inside, all is high-ceilinged atriums, walkway ascents, and multiple levels, a dramatic setting for the museum's temporary exhibitions (many of which are more avant-garde in character than the ones housed in the main building). Topping the complex off is a state-of-the-art amphitheater. Latest addition to the Benaki museum is the Islamic Art collection, which is housed in a beautifully restored neoclassical mansion behind the Kerameikos cemetery.
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