The Heraklion Archaeological Museum was founded in 1908 to house the first collections of Cretan antiquities, which were rapidly enhanced. Its cultural riches cover seven millennia, from the Neolithic period (7000 BC) to Roman times (3rd cent. AD). Following the restoration work of the past few years, completed in May 2014, the exhibition is housed in 27 rooms. The collections are now displayed according to modern museological practices and design, in chronological and thematic units accompanied by audiovisual material and introductory texts.
The exhibition itinerary starts on the ground floor with the Minoan Collection (Rooms I-XII), continues on the first floor with the Minoan Frescoes (Room XIII) and the Historic Period (Rooms XV-XXII), and ends back on the ground floor with the Sculpture Collection (Rooms XXVI-XXVII). The private collections of S. Giamalakis and N. & Th. Metaxas are presented in a separate section on the first floor (Room XXIII), as is the reflected influence of the Minoan past of Crete in ancient and modern times (Rooms XIV, XXV).
In the twelve rooms on the ground floor, the exhibits of the glorious Minoan civilisation, the first urban-palatial culture on European soil, are presented in thematic units highlighting the formation of the first communities, the rise of the ruling classes and the consolidation of palatial power and hierarchy, as well as the Minoan scripts which formed the basis of the administrative system. The outward-looking spirit of the Cretan centres and the construction of seagoing ships favoured participation in exchange networks, importing goods and transferring ideas from the late 3rd millennium BC onwards, and securing Crete a dominant position in the Aegean and the East Mediterranean during the 16th and early 15th cent. BC. The rule of the seafaring Minoans in the Aegean, linked to the ancient legends of the demigod King Minos, lord of the labyrinthine Palace of Knossos, is the main focus of the exhibition. Finds associated with religious rituals, sports, public festivals, aspects of private life and burial customs are showcased in dedicated rooms.
The celebrated Minoan art is featured through thousands of objects. Among the most spectacular are the famous faience Snake Goddesses, the stone bull's-head rhyton, the Prince of the Lilies and Bull-Leaping Frescoes, the gold Bee Pendant, the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus, the polychrome Kamares Ware vases, the Linear B tablets from Knossos and the enigmatic Phaistos Disc.
In the rooms on the first floor dedicated to Historic times, we see Crete incorporated into the cultural and political structures of the Ancient Greek world. Particular emphasis is placed on the founding of the Cretan cities and worship in organised sanctuaries. The burial finds reveal beliefs and practices connected to the afterlife, while artefacts such as cosmetic implements, mosaics and inscriptions reveal Cretan prosperity and reflect daily life. The coinage, presented in a separate unit, bears witness to the flourishing of the cities and the employment of Cretans as mercenaries in the East Mediterranean.
The two rooms of the Sculpture Collection on the ground floor form an autonomous section that functions independently of the rest of the exhibition as a sort of sculpture gallery. It houses sculptures covering the period from the 7th cent. BC to the 3rd cent. AD. Pride of place is given to the Archaic statues that demonstrate the innovative Cretan contribution to the creation of Greek monumental sculpture, which is inspired by Doric austerity. A series of busts of Roman emperors and Roman copies of well-known statue types of Classical antiquity show that the island flourished during the Roman period, when Gortys became the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica.
The private collections of Stylianos Giamalakis and Nikos & Theano Metaxa (Room XXIII) are presented in a separate section, as well as the echo of the Minoan past of Crete in ancient and modern times (Rooms XIV and XXV).
In the Museum garden are preserved the ruins of the Venetian Monastery of St Francis, attesting to the prosperity of the city of Heraklion during the Venetian period.