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When you think of the Benaki Museum, the first thing that comes to mind is its magnificent neoclassical building on Vasilissis Sofias (Queen Sofia Avenue) in the center of Athens, opposite the verdant National Gardens. But few people know that the Benaki Museum is part of a composite architectural complex that has undergone a series of additions.
The core of the building was built in the 19th century in 1895 and was known as the Harokopos Mansion. When the family of Emmanuel Benakis, a wealthy cotton merchant, moved from Alexandria, Egypt to Athens in 1910, a ballroom and additional auxiliary spaces were added to the humble mansion. In 1929, it was enlarged with the addition of another wing to transform the house into a museum.
Later in 1965, the exhibition areas were further enlarged by architect Emmanuel Vourekas to accommodate the artifacts of Eleftherios Venizelos – credited as the maker of modern Greece – as well as the collection of Greek politician and avid collector Damianos Kyriazis. Then in 1968, further extension works were carried out to welcome the important donation of Eleni Stathatou.
Then again in 1973, funded by the Stamatios Dekozis-Vouros Foundation, the construction of another wing and a small rooftop bar was implemented, again by Vourekas.
The successive additions of wings, both at ground level and in the basement, called for the reorganization of the whole building as well as the addition of a new wing in the back, and so this restructuring project, designed by architect Alekos Kalligas, began in 1989 and was completed in 1997. At that time, the usable space doubled to reach a staggering 7,000 square meters, which, in addition to the two storage basements in the new wing, is distributed over five interior levels.
Finally, in 2000, the museum reopened with great fanfare on the 7th of June by the President of the Republic, Konstantinos Stephanopoulos. The newest addition, the Greek collections comprise of works of art from the prehistorical to the modern times. Focusing only on Greece, the Benaki Museum on Vasilissis Sofias is, therefore, an excellent attraction to discover and learn more about the country.
But the Benaki is more than that. Over the years, the museum has been receiving donations from generous contributors and today includes the Kouloura Mansion in Palaio Faliro, which houses a Children’s Toys Collection; the Benaki Islamic Art Museum in Kerameikos, where collections of Islamic Art and Chinese porcelain with paintings have been relocated from the main museum; the Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas Gallery in the center of Athens; and the Penelope Delta House in Kifissia, which accommodates the Historical Archive Collection.
The Museum of Islamic Art, located in a neoclassical building in the Kerameikos district, features a unique collection of world-renowned artifacts, one of the top ten in the world. It depicts the evolution of Islamic civilization from the emergence of Islam up to the Ottoman period and the development of Islamic art up to the 19th century with a collection of over 8,000 works of art, including ceramics, gold, metalwork, textiles and glass, and other artifacts. Also, a section of the ancient city wall of Athens is now accessible to visitors. It was uncovered during restoration works.
The new Benaki Museum building is located at 138 Peiraios Street. Organized around a central courtyard, the new building covers an area of 8,200 square meters with a 300-seat amphitheater and operates a bookshop and restaurant at the ground level.
The Delta House, located in the northern suburb of Kifissia, was built at the beginning of the 20th century by an architect who remains unknown to date. Sold in 1912 by owner K. Lytsikas to Emmanuel Benakis, the house was given to his daughter, author Penelope – married to Stephanos Delta – who moved into the house in 1916. She lived there for 25 years, until her suicide in 1941, upon the arrival of the German armies in Athens. It was there that she wrote her best-known children stories like The Secrets of the Swamp and Crazy Antonis, based on her brother’s childhood adventures. Since 1994, the Delta House accommodates the Historical Archives.
The Kouloura House dates from the 19th century and is designed in a neo-Gothic style. The building is one of the few remnants of this era that has survived. Donated by Athanasios and Vera Kouloura, it is located on Poseidonos Avenue in Palaio Faliro and is the designated home of the collection of Toys and Games donated to the museum by Maria Argyriadi in 1992.
The Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s residence was donated to the Benaki Museum during the artist’s lifetime. The original structure is a typical example of an interwar apartment block. The artist lived on the fifth floor of the building, using the unusually spacious and well-lit space on the sixth floor as a studio and library. He lived and worked there until his death in 1994. In 1991, the N. Hadjikyriakos-Ghika Gallery opened in an area of 150 square meters on the fourth floor of the building. Organized by the artist, the permanent exhibition includes works representing his creativity.
Whether you are interested in modern Greek history, contemporary or Islamic art, or if you are looking for a fun place to take your children, nieces, or nephews, there is always a museum available for you. Make sure to check each museum’s schedule ahead of time.