Within minutes walk from the archaeological site, lies the Archaeological Museum of Olympia which houses artifacts found in the Archaeological Site of Ancient Olympia.
It is one of the most important museums in Greece and presents the long history of the most celebrated sanctuary of antiquity, the sanctuary of Zeus, father of gods, where the Olympic Games were born.
It is also known as New Museum and was designed by the architect Patroklos Karantinos and built between 1966 and 1975.
Olympia’s Old Museum, a neoclassical building erected with funds granted by the benefactor A. Syngros in 1885, had suffered greatly from the many earthquakes which hit the area. Furthermore, the wealth of finds from the continuing excavations made the construction of a new museum necessary. The exhibits were gradually moved from the Old Museum and the New Museum was inaugurated in 1982 by Melina Merkouri.
Thirty years later, on the occasion of the Athens Olympic Games of 2004, the exhibition of the sanctuary finds, particularly the bronzes and Roman sculptures, was reorganized. In September 2003, the exhibits were packaged and the exhibition galleries, service areas and storerooms were renovated and enlarged. The new exhibition, which follows more or less the philosophy and principles of the old one, was inaugurated on March 24, 2004. The prehistoric collection, the bronze collection, the large terracottas collection, the Hellenistic collection and the collection of Roman statues were all reorganized. A new gallery was created for the Workshop of Pheidias while the gallery of Hermes was enlarged to allow the statue room to ‘breath’ and the statue itself was given high-tech anti-seismic protection. The museum’s last gallery, which housed an exhibition relevant to the Olympic Games, is now dedicated to the last years of the sanctuary. Finally, the museum shop was moved to a new building between the museum and the site, and the area surrounding the museum was also rearranged.
Renowned for its sculpture collection, for which the museum is most famous, the collection of ancient Greek bronzes, which is the richest in the world, and the large terracottas collection, it goes without saying that the Archaeological Museum of Olympia ranks among the most important museums in Greece.
Through the many exhibits of the permanent exhibition of the Archaeological Museum of Olympia the visitor is introduced to the history of the great Pan-Hellenic sanctuary from the Early Bronze Age to the sixth-seventh centuries AD. The sculpted decoration (metopes and pediments) of the temple of Zeus, the most important example of the Severe Style in Greek art, the statue of Nike by Paionios and the Hermes of Praxiteles are the museum’s “pièce de résistance”. Equally important is the bronze collection, the richest of its kind in the world.
The recently reorganized exhibition occupies twelve galleries set out in chronological order. Its aim is to present the objects, inform the visitor in a simple yet scientific manner and assists him/her according to the latest museological standards. It gives a full picture of the historical development of both the sanctuary and ancient Greek art through a wide selection of exhibits, as well as information panels, maps, drawings, photographs and reconstructions and models of the monuments.
The Museum of Olympia houses masterpieces of classical art such as the sculptures of Zeus’ temple. The large central gallery houses the unique marble pedimental sculptures and metopes of the temple of Zeus, the most important exhibits in the museum, all of them characteristic examples of the Severe Style.
The famous Hermes of Praxiteles, also known as the Hermes and the Infant Dionysos, one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art, discovered in 1877 in the ruins of the Temple of Hera, is bathed in natural light from the gallery’s skylights and has anti-seismic protection at its base. It is traditionally attributed to Praxiteles and dated to the 4th century BC, based on a remark by the 2nd century Greek traveler Pausanias, and has made a major contribution to the definition of Praxitelean style. It is sculpted from a block of the best quality of Parian marble. The statue of Hermes carrying the infant god Dionysus measures 2.10m, 3.70 m with the base.
One of the best known exhibits is the Statue of Nike (or Nike of Paeonius) which is featured on the medals awarded during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
No later than 420 BC, Paeonios of Mende, a Greek sculptor who also decorate the acroteria of the Temple of Zeus, created his winged goddess Nike; the statue that became synonymous with the iconographic allegory of Victory. The inscription on the base states that it was dedicated by the Messenians and Naupaktians as a tithe of the spoils of their enemies, the Spartans. She stood in the altis of the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. With her wings and head intact, the statue itself was about 3 meters tall.
More than 14,000 bronze artifacts were preserved buried in the soil of Olympia, by far the largest number ever found in a region of the ancient Hellenic world. Human and animal figurines constitute a popular category of those metal works, dating back as early as in the 9th century BC. They often depict warriors, charioteers and, of course, athletes such as the mid-6th century BC statuette of a discus thrower or the early-5th century statuette of a runner.
Apart from Olympic winners, warriors returning victorious from battlefields expressed their gratitude to Zeus by donating their weapons. Thus, Olympia turned out to be a repository of ancient Greek weaponry with a long series of helmets, shields, cuirasses, spears and other parts of armor recovered from the site and now on display in the museum. Of immense historical significance is the helmet of the Athenian General Miltiades, the winner of the battle of Marathon against the Persians (490 BC). A unique example of ancient war instrument is a battering ram of the 5th century BC.
Pheidias and his workshop
When the priests of Olympia decided that the temple of Zeus needed a new cult statue, Pheidias was the very man to be sought for. The artist, whose sculptures upon the Acropolis had left Athenians open mouthed, settled in his purpose-built workshop in Olympia and by 430 BC he delivered the colossal gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus which would be listed among the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Both the chryselephantine Zeus and its counterpart statue of Athena in the Parthenon vanished in the Middle Ages, however Pheidias’ workshop was discovered during the excavations at Olympia and its contents are on display in a special hall of the Archaeological Museum. Raw material residues, tools, jewels and casts offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sanctum of a leading ancient Greek sculptor who took the trouble to sign his personal cup, inscribing upon the base “I belong to Pheidias”; another unique exhibit at the Museum of Olympia.
The collections are displayed in a modern way and in a chronological order. Easy to understand information panels and subtle lighting, make visiting the museum of Ancient Olympia an interesting and enjoyable memory.