Monday, May 19, 2008

Museums of Athens, Great and Small


All of the museums of Athens have one or more excellent guides to their collections, which visitors are urged to purchase for their pleasure both while visiting Athens and, equally important, to remember their visit.

Still, a few words are in order on the principal collections which many will visit.

The Akropolis Museum: As its name suggests the Akropolis Museum contains finds, from the Akropolis; the glory of the collection lies in its sculpture, particularly the archaic sculpture. Visitors should be sure to see the Ramping Horseman, and the series of figures of korai, or young girls. The girls look as they would have done when taking part in the Panathenaic Procession. Also on display are those bits of sculpture from the Parthenon frieze which Lord Elgin did not take to England, as well as The Caryatides from the Erechtheum.

The Agora Museum: The Agora Museum has finds from the Agora, dating from the Neolithic to the Turkish periods. The museum's collection of pottery is superb; unfortunately, relatively little is on display, as this is a working collection for scholars. Visitors should be sure: to see the ancient Athenian working machine, or form of ballot box, known as the Kleroterion. In addition, the museum has many inscriptions on display, and numerous items from daily life through the centuries.

The Benaki Museum:
HaIf the fun of visiting the Benaki Museum on Leoforos Vasilissis, Sofias is seeing the lovely view of Athens from the Museum's rooftop cafe. The collection was begun by a wealthy Athenian, A. Benakis, and highlights the Greek War of Independence, the Monarchy, the PhilheIlenes and the early travellers in Greece. The museum's collection of Greek costumes is the finest in the country, as is its collection of islamic pottery. The museum is always cool and delightful in summer.

The Byzantine Museum: The Byzantine Museum is in the large home of the 19th century Duchess de Plaisance; astonishingly, the palace was in the open country when it was built little more than 140 years ago. The Museum is an excellent place to visit before touring the Byzantine churches of Athens, as exhibits set forth the development of church architecture in Greece. The museum's collection of icons is superb, and some what overwhelming for any not accustomed to this art form.

The Folk Art Museum: The Museum of Folk Art on Kidathineon Street is easy to miss, as only a small plaque on the door of number 17 announces its presence. It would be a shame to miss this delightful museum of Greek life throughout Greece; any who are not able to travel outside Athens should make a particular point to visit this superb collection of costumes and items of daily life (spinning wheels, agricultural tools, metal work, embroidery). The museum also contains an entire room painted by the famous modern Greek primitive painter Theophilos Hadjimichael(1868-1934)

The Kanellopoulos Collection: The Kanellopoulos Collection is in an elegant neoclassical house on the upper reaches of the Plaka, at the intersection of Theorias and Panou Streets. One passes the museum as one walks down from the Akropolis into the Plaka, and it makes a pleasant stop for a half-hour.
The collection is that of one family, and ranges through Greek art from Neolithic to modern times. The house is at least as interesting as the collection itself.

The Museum of the Kerameikos: As one would except from a museum in the potters's quarter, the Kerameikos Museum has a superb collection of ancient pottery. In addition, many of the funeral stele from the Kerameikos cemetery are on display here, as well as some of the sculptured figures which decorated the more ornate tombs.

The National Archaeological Museum: The National Museum on Patission Street deserves not one, but many visits. Especially in summer, the Museum is crowded, and it is difficult to see its riches at leisure. Good tours do exist which take one rapidly through the museum, past the highlights of the collection. Most will then wish to revisit the museum.

The Mycenaean Hall, just inside the Museum entrance, contains the famous gold of Mycenae, including the gold mask which Schliemann believed to be that of Agamemnon. Even if this was not the case, the regal splendor of the mask is haunting. The elegant gold Vaphio cups in the Mycenaean Hall are also irresistibly beautiful. In the Cycladic Hall are the Cycladic idols which many have compared to the work of Modigliani, so clean and modern are their lines. The Harp Player is particularly fine.

As one continues on through the museum, one proceeds chronologically from the Geometric (9th & 8th) to the Archaic (7th and 6th) to the Classical (5th and 4th) to the Hellenistic (3rd to 1st)periods. Monumental stone youths, or kouroi, give way to monumental bronze statues, such as the Zeus or Poseidon found off Cape Artemision. Funeral stele and portrait busts from throughout Greece, as well as architectural fragments and ornament fill the museum. On the upper floor are delightful frescoes from the island of Santorini (Thera), dating from the Minoan period, and various small collections. Quite simply, the National Museum of Archaeology has the finest collection of Greek antiquities in the world, and should be visited slowly, carefully, and often.

The National Gallery of Greece: This new picture gallery, across from the Hilton Hotel, has modern Greek painting of the 19th and 20th centuries. Often there are special exhibits of young artists on display. Anyone interested in modern art will find this a rewarding collection.

National Historical Museum: The Old Parliament Building on Stadiou Street is now the home of this collection which deals with Greek history in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the Greek struggle for Independence from the Turk. The museum has many fine etchings and paintings of heroes during that struggle, as well as stirring battle scenes.


The Jewish Museum: The Jewish Museum at 5 Melidoni Street, beside the Athens synagogue, has a fascinating - and heartbreaking - collection of items illustrating life among Greek Jews before World War II. There were 80,000 Greek Jews before the war; only 8500 survived. Some of those who survived, notably Nikos Sravroulakis, organized this museum.

The Museum of the City of Athens: The Museum of the City of Athens is in the palace of King Otto on Klafmonos Square, and is one of the few remaining examples of the neo-classical style so popular under the new monarchy. Exhibits on the ground floor recreate the period of Otto, while the upstairs is arranged as it was when Otto and Queen Amalia lived here.

The Train Museum: The Train Museum, at 301 Liossion Street, preserves the memory of the Orient Express and other of the mighty steam trains which one made their way throughout Greece. Especially interesting are the royal coach of King George I and the smoking coach of the Sultan Abdul-Aziz.

Important: Museum Hours: It is vital to check for up-to-date information on all museums as close as possible to the time of one's visit. Museums are usually closed on Tuesdays and on 1 January, 25 March, Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. Some museums are open all day, some mornings only, others afternoons only. Be sure to check for accurate, up-to-date information at the National Tourist Organization

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