Designed by the celebrated Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greek architect Michalis Fotiadis, the Acropolis Museum made world headlines when it opened in June 2009. If some buildings define an entire city in a particular era, Athens's newest museum boldly sets the tone of Greece's modern era. Occupying a large plot of the city's most prized real estate, the Acropolis Museum nods to the fabled ancient hill above it but speaks—thanks to a spectacular building—in a contemporary architectural language.
The museum drew 90,000 visitors in its first month and proved it is spacious enough to accommodate such crowds (happily, as a whopping six and a half million visitors had entered the doors of the ingenious, airy structure by June 2014). Unlike its crammed, dusty predecessor, there is lots of elbow room, from the museum's olive tree–dotted grounds to its prized, top-floor Parthenon Gallery.
Regal glass walkways, very high ceilings, and panoramic views are all part of the experience. In the five-level museum, every shade of marble is on display and bathed in abundant, UV-safe natural light. Visitors pass into the museum through a broad entrance and move ever upwards.
The ground floor exhibit, "The Acropolis Slopes," features objects found in the sanctuaries and settlements around the Acropolis—a highlight is the collection of theatrical masks and vases from the sanctuary of the matrimonial deity Nymphe. The next floor is devoted to the Archaic period (650 BC–480 BC), with rows of precious statues mounted for 360-degree viewing. The floor includes sculptural figures from the Hekatompedon—the temple that may have predated the classical Parthenon—such as the noted group of stone lions gorging a bull from 570 BC. The legendary five Caryatids (or Korai)—the female figures supporting the Acropolis's Erectheion building—symbolically leave a space for their sister, who resides in London's British Museum.
The second floor is devoted to the terrace and restaurant/coffee shop with a wonderful view of the Acropolis, which starts by serving a traditional Greek breakfast every day except Monday, before moving on to more delicious Greek dishes (every Friday the restaurant remains open until midnight).
Drifting into the top-floor atrium, the visitor can watch a video on the Parthenon before entering the star gallery devoted to the temple's Pentelic marble decorations, many of which depict a grand procession in the goddess Athena's honor. Frieze pieces (originals and copies), metopes, and pediments are all laid out in their original orientation. This is made remarkably apparent because the gallery consists of a magnificent, rectangle-shaped room tilted to align with the Parthenon itself. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide magnificent vistas of the temple just a few hundred feet away.
Museum politics are unavoidable here. This gallery was designed—as Greek officials have made obvious—to hold the Parthenon Marbles in their entirety. This includes the sculptures Lord Elgin brought to London two centuries ago. Currently, 50 meters of the frieze are in Athens, 80 meters in London's British Museum, and another 30 meters scattered in museums around the world. The spectacular and sumptuous new museum challenges the British claim that there is no suitable home for the Parthenon treasures in Greece. Pointedly, the museum avoids replicas, as the top-floor gallery makes a point of highlighting the abundant missing original pieces.
Elsewhere on view are other fabled works of art, including the Rampin Horseman and the compelling Hound, both by the sculptor Phaidimos; the noted pediment sculpted into a calf being devoured by a lioness—a 6th-century BC treasure that brings to mind Picasso's Guernica; striking pedimental figures from the Old Temple of Athena (525 BC) depicting the battle between Athena and the Giants; and the great Nike Unfastening Her Sandal, taken from the parapet of the Acropolis's famous Temple of Athena Nike.