The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great

When I found out that my 15 year-old daughter had a day off from school because of high school graduation, I jumped at the opportunity to bond with her and take her to The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great.  My daughter used to love archaeology camp, her favorite subject is history, and next year, she is taking Ancient Civilization, so I knew the subject would be right up her alley. 

This large exhibition, covering 5,000 years of Greek civilization is at the National Geographic Museum through October 10, 2016.  The 560 objects are from 22 Greek museums and many of them have never been seen outside that country.

The Greeks at National Geographic MuseumThe exhibition begins with a short film about Greek art, culture, and influence. It then proceeds chronologically from the Neolithic Period, around 6000 BC until the end of the Classical Period, marked by the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.

Every chronological period has a projected landscape, a synopsis of the main events, and an animated film with key ideas and art objects. Most rooms feature exhibit cases with the complete finds from tombs. For me, the exhibition got more and more interesting as time went on – when the artwork went from primitive figurines to sophisticated reliefs and sculptures.

The Mycenaean World features a first edition of Heinrich Schliemann’s book about his archaeological excavations in 1878 and many cases with artifacts from  his discovery of six tombs. Highlights include a helmet composed of over 50 boar tusks, swords, and the grave of a warrior as it would have been found.  Children can touch reproductions of a sword and signet.

The Iron Age, which highlights the Trojan War and Homeric legends, is the most kid-friendly of all the rooms. It features a large table with two Epic Journey of Odysseus board games.  Up to four players can play each game at a time and it resembled Chutes and Ladders.

This room also contains jewelry found in the tomb of the Lady of Agai.  The curator calls her the “Jackie O. of the Past” because a complete set of matching bracelets, necklaces, rings, and hair ornaments was found in her tomb.

The Archaic Period saw the development of large scale kouros (male) and kore (female) figures.  You can touch tools like the ones the Greeks would have used and see a display of their pigments.  Although most sculptures and buildings now appear white, they were once brightly colored.  Ten helmets on view are richly ornamented with engraved gold.

One of the multiple Classical Greece sections discusses the creation of the Olympics. Objects of note include a statue of Herakles (Hercules) with a club and lion skins, a huge amphora depicting a winning horse, and another illustrating the contest between Poseidon and Athens to be the patron of the city. You could touch a replica of a strigil (tool that male athletes used to remove their sweat).

The Greeks at The National Geographic MuseumThe next Classical section describes Athens as the birthplace of democracy.  I had no idea that the Greeks had sophisticated ballots and even a jury machine. Citizens put their ballots in and balls would fall down a chute to anonymously and fairly pick jurors. 

Earphones allow you to hear words of wisdom from philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Demosthenes.  The room concludes with tragedy and comedy masks, and a bust of playwright Sophocles.

The final room covers the reigns of Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great. The curator of the exhibition, who was wandering around, described Phillip II as the “George Washington of Greece” for his achievement of uniting the country.  You can view objects from his tomb and his diadem (like a crown). 

His sixth wife’s gold myrtle wreath was one of the most beautiful objects on display.  You can also see objects found in Phillip’s tomb. His son Alexander created the largest empire of the western world.

My daughter most admired the gold wreaths and all the gold jewelry found in the tombs. I appreciated the well-written signage about the history and the art and seeing the tombs as archaeologists would have uncovered them.  The exhibition took us about two hours to explore.

Although there were a decent amount of interactive opportunities to touch reproductions of objects and some earphones, I would still say the content and scale of the exhibition would make it appeal more to middle and high school students. This exhibition was double the size of most National Geographic exhibitions.  I may have to return with my younger daughter, who just learned about the Greeks in World Studies. We definitely plan to watch The Greeks PBS series at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays beginning June 21.

Additional Information

  • Admission: Adults – $15; 
Members/Military/Seniors (over 62)/Students/Groups (25+) – $12
; Children (ages 5–12) – $10
 and School and youth groups (18 and under) are Free
  • Tickets may be purchased in advance at https://tickets.nationalgeographic.com/single/eventlisting.aspx?k=98, in person, or by calling 202 857 7700 Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Closed December 25.
  • Restrooms: Water fountains and hard, changing shelves in both restrooms.
  • Upcoming Program on Saturday, June 25th at 11am:  Who Was Alexander the Great? A family friendly event. Join Kathryn and Robin Waterfield, authors of Who Was Alexander the Great? The Waterfields will talk about Alexander the Great and his world, answer questions, and sign copies of their book. This event is recommended for families with children ages five to 12.
  • Getting There:  National Geographic is a short walk from Metro’s Farragut North (Red Line) and Farragut West (Orange/Blue Line) stations.  Some metered parking is available on 17th St. and M St.

The Greeks at The National Geographic Museum

Photo Credits

  • Photo One: Gold Myrtle Crown – This wreath worn by Queen Meda is one of the most remarkable gold objects of the ancient world. With hundreds of leaves and blossoms, the myrtle is remarkably realistic and graceful. © Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, Vergina
  • Photo Two: Alexander the Great Bust – Sculpted shortly after Alexander’s death, this marble bust depicts him in the flower of youth. © Archaeological Museum of Pella
  • Photo Three: Artifacts on display at National Geographic’s The Greeks – Agamemnon to Alexander the Great.  Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.
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