The city of Athens is fortunate to host an abundance of museums. There are, indeed, so many fascinating museums and ever-changing exhibitions that may satisfy various audiences and moods. Greece, and Athens in particular, are of course primarily associated with and known for their ancient Greek artefacts. Visits to museums centring on Greek antiquities not only offer a clear insight into these artefacts but also give us a window into the real people and context in which they were used.
In this article, I will not focus on the largest and most popular Athenian museums, but rather on one I have held close to my heart since I was a student, the Herakleidon Museum. The Herakleidon Museum was founded in 2004 by Paul and Anna-Bellinda Firos and it is located near Acropolis and the ancient Agora, in the district of Thiseion, an area named after the mythical king of Athens, Theseus. The museum comprises two impressive neoclassical buildings in the area at a 150-metre distance from one another, on Apostolou Pavlou 37 (pictured below) and Herakleidon Street 16 (above).
Focusing on Science, Art, and Mathematics, the Herakleidon Museum hosts some of the most unique collections in Athens. One of its most iconic exhibitions, exhibited not long after the museum’s foundation, concentrated on the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher’s art. This collection of Escher, one which was unlike anything I had seen as a student and which still brings me joy, was what turned the Herakleidon Museum into an instant favourite for me. The building located at Herakleidon street was made into a materialised Escherian painting, as its innovative architectural structure was used to mimic and extend that of the very paintings it exhibited.
The museum has nowadays evolved into ‘an interactive centre of science popularisation and a technological museum that focuses on antiquity, with emphasis on the achievements of the ancient Greeks’. Still maintaining its preference towards exhibiting unique themes, the Herakleidon Museum’s new exhibitions centre on less-known facts around ancient Greece. One of its most astounding current exhibitions is that on Greek automata, essentially proto-robots designed or improved during the Hellenistic period. I was particularly taken with the ‘walking Servant of Heron and Philo’, a replica of a statue of a young woman, which was used to serve wine to symposiasts. The Servant of Heron and Philo contains two mechanisms, one of which ensures that the proto-robot pours one cup of wine at a time and the other one controlling its movement. All replicas of ancient automata are accompanied by an extensive explanation of how they functioned and copies of preserved notes of ancient mathematicians, which show the technological thought behind them.
Alongside the Greek automata, the visitor may see a large 3-D model of the Antikythera mechanism, which culminates the ancient technology exhibition. Retrieved from a shipwreck near the Greek island Antikythera in 1901, this approximately 2000-year old hand-powered analogue computer was used to compute the exact position of celestial objects, the date and time of eclipses, and other natural phenomena. The Antikythera mechanism also has ancient Greek inscriptions, which have been studied and are reconstructed to a great extent in the 3D replica. Furthermore, together with the model of the Antikythera mechanism comes an extensive discussion of the most recent research on its original use and function. An interesting detail is that the museum’s windows on Herakleidon Street have been decorated with painted pieces from the Antikythera mechanism.
The admission fee to both buildings of the Herakleidon Museum is 5 euros for adults and 3 euros for children and teenagers between 12-18 years as well as university students, teachers, pensioners, and unemployed. Free admission applies to children under the age of 12 years old and people over 65 years old. The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10.00 AM to 6.00 PM. If you are planning a visit to Athens and have time to explore more than the main sights at the historic city centre, then I highly recommend the Herakleidon Museum.
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Eleni Ntanou is a Lecturer in Classics at the University of Athens and a philologist at the Hellenic-American College in Athens. She is mainly interested in pastoral and epic poetry and, generally, the study of genre as well as gender in Augustan and Flavian literature. Alongside these main interests, she works with migration narratives, literary geographies, and identity. She has been interested in Classics and Art since her first visit to the Parthenon, when she was four years old. @eleni_ntanou