Benaki Museum

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Benaki Museum

Greece's oldest private museum received a spectacular addition in 2004, just before the Athens Olympics, with a hyper-modern new branch that looks like it was airlifted in from New York City. Located on the gentrifying Pireos Street, the new annex is all the more striking when compared to the main museum, set in an imposing neoclassical mansion in the posh Kolonaki neighborhood. 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 annex at 138 Pireos Street in the Rouf neighborhood displays avant-garde temporary exhibitions. Topping the complex off is a state-of-the-art amphitheater. Latest addition to the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in a beautifully restored neoclassical mansion behind the Kerameikos cemetery.


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