The new Acropolis Museum

I read a very interesting article about the new Acropolis Museum in Athens by Peter Aspden who is a regular columnist in the FT weekend and half Greek from his mother side. Enjoy it.

A manifesto for the Marbles by Peter Aspden published in Financial Times
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“It stands like a giant modernist spaceship that has belly-flopped by curious accident opposite one of the most important cultural sites on the planet. Polemics and controversy have been hard-wired into its being. It has taken decades in the planning, years in the realisation, and an extra few months beyond its intended inauguration in the fine-tuning. But, finally, the new Acropolis Museum, fresh home to the extraordinary artistic legacy of ancient Athens, is ready to open its doors to the public.

Next spring, visitors will set foot inside Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s glass-and-concrete edifice, all sharp edges and skewed angles, and address for themselves one of the the most intractable cultural disputes of modern times. When they travel to the museum’s top floor, they will see marble panels from the famous frieze that used to encircle the Parthenon, the symbol of Athenian democracy that stands like a staid, elderly relative, looking wearily across at the upstart building from its incomparable vantage point on top of the Acropolis a few hundred metres away.

Only about half of the original panels will be on view, of course. The remainder famously, or infamously, line the walls of the Duveen gallery in London’s British Museum, to which they were transported in the early 19th century by the Scottish aristocrat Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin.

The Greeks have long wanted their Marbles back, but the building of the new Acropolis Museum finally gives them the physical authority to buttress an argument that has too often relied on shrill sentimentalism and unsubtle jingoism. The museum is a provocation, an enticement, a tease. Tschumi has done everything other than daub slogans on the exterior walls to say to the world at large: “The Parthenon Marbles belong here, next to the building from which they were taken.”

The glass rectangle on top of the building is designed in the same proportions and at the same angle to the Acropolis as the Parthenon itself. It is flooded with natural light, and supported by concrete columns that, again, echo the architectural features of the ancient monument. The frieze looks proudly outward, as it did for centuries on its parent building, rather than brooding inwardly as it does in Bloomsbury. This, be sure of it, is architecture as propaganda.

One surprise, for those who have followed this debate along its tortuous path to the present day, is that the original parts of the frieze will be joined by plaster casts made in the 19th century of all the panels that reside in the British Museum. In an ironic touch, they even have a British Museum seal on them. More ironic still, says the museum director Dimitrios Pandermalis, the Greek government of the time had to pay for them to be made.

I ask him, as he shows me around the museum for a rare preview, whatever happened to the idea of leaving blank spaces for the missing panels, or covering the copies with some kind of gauze, as an emotive protest against their absence. “It was too dramatic,” he says softly.

He is right, of course: there is drama enough in the story of the Parthenon Marbles themselves. The frieze, the metopes and the wondrous pediments that constitute the Marbles represent the acme of classical Greek art. It was their excellence, combined with the neglect of the Ottoman regime occupying Greece at the time, that lured Elgin to Athens in the first place, and persuaded him to bring them back to London.

The status of Elgin’s excursion has been the subject of dispute, much of it dry and academic, for some 200 years. But it was vividly brought back to life in the early 1980s by the then Greek minister of culture Melina Mercouri, who began to make un-ashamedly emotive appeals for the return of the Marbles to Athens.

An actress by profession, and possessed of startling charisma, Mercouri was not just playing to the crowd. Greece had rid itself of its odious military junta only a few years earlier, in 1974; it was desperate to remind the world that its mothering of democracy stretched back a good few years earlier than that. What better symbol than the Panathenaic procession depicted in the Parthenon frieze, an indisputable artistic masterpiece of enduring political resonance?

But Mercouri’s appeals fell on the unsympathetic ears of the British Museum’s director of the time, Sir David Wilson, whose reply to her was abrupt to the point of rudeness. He accused Mercouri of “cultural fascism” and dismissed outright any Greek claim to the sculptures.

Over the past decade, the debate has quietened down but evolved in two important ways. The Greek government has cast aside the issue of legal ownership, concentrating instead on the need to unify the various pieces that comprise the Marbles in one place (begging the question: where?). At the same time the British Museum’s current director, Neil MacGregor, has articulated with much greater clarity and intellectual coherence its own case for retaining its part of the treasure, focusing on the museum’s unique ability to bring world masterpieces together under one roof and allow visitors to compare them.

Pandermalis is very much of the new, diplomatic school of cultural engagement. He says there will be no flash-bang polemics in the labelling and descriptions in the Parthenon gallery, and is determined to “remove the passion” from a debate which he concedes is infernally complicated.

“Every possibility is open,” he says. “It is a difficult issue, but it is also a challenge, to find a new approach to an old problem.”

He reserves his strongest language for events long gone, stating that the current impasse is the result of the “inappropriate way in which the sculptures were taken in the 19th century; in my opinion, it was vandalism”. But he says he respects the British Museum position, describing MacGregor as a “great art historian and an excellent museum director”.

I say to him that his best chance to re-unite the Marbles is to make a formal request for a loan from the British Museum. “I would very much like to do that,” he says, but he is a little wistful, for he knows that for most Greek sensibilities that would constitute an unacceptable backing-down. To request a loan is to concede ownership, and that is a step too far for any Greek government, which would be ridiculed by its electorate. It is a reminder that, in culture, to be open-minded may be a primus inter pares of virtues, but in politics it comes dangerously close to appearing supine.

For the British Museum’s part, it says it has received no recent formal request for the return of the Marbles (but makes clear that it would say no), nor has it been asked for a loan, long-term or otherwise. It also stresses that it operates independently of the British government, via its trustees – a nuance not always appreciated by its Greek antagonists.

So the argument is destined to be played out in these two starkly contrasting arenas, as tourists visiting both capitals of culture form their own views on the basis of what they see. Pandermalis hopes that the existence alone of the new museum will remove an important plank from the common argument (though not one put forward by the British Museum), that the Marbles are simply better cared for in London than they could ever be in Athens.

Tschumi’s building is certainly an important and impressive addition to the museum world, relying to an unprecedented degree on natural light (some views of the sculptures dazzle the eyes, a deliberate effect according to Pandermalis) and sprinkling its works all around the galleries, facing in different directions, to give the effect of perambulation rather than spectating from afar. Visitors can look around the ground floor, and see a temporary exhibition of objects recently repatriated to Italian and Greek museums after they had been found to be illegally exported. (A provocative show, I say to Pandermalis. “Yes” he replies.)

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What is to be done? Can the positions of Athens and London ever be reconciled? I have spent years listening to the arguments trudge back and forth and, as an interested observer and of Anglo-Greek parentage, would like here to propose a five-point manifesto to help break the deadlock: 1. The building of the new Acropolis museum is a big deal. Like the successful running of the Olympic Games of 2004, it symbolises the journey that modern Greece has made in a relatively short time from political and cultural volatility to self-confident maturity. It is worthy of celebration, and what better present could it have than the proactive, public offer of a loan from the British Museum of an important section of the Parthenon Marbles – let’s say the pieces taken from the two pediments that dominated either end of the monument? They are magnificent pieces of storytelling, and those stories should be told, for once, in one place. They should be brought together in Athens for a loan of three years. Following which there is the small matter of. . . . 2. The London Olympic Games of 2012, which is also a big deal: an opportunity for the capital to bring a human face to what has become a bloated sporting franchise, and emphasise the event’s cultural importance. The philhellenism of the British is legendary, and no institution has played a greater role in teaching the world of the Greeks’ cultural achievements than the British Museum. The reunited pediments should come to London for the opening of the games, and remain there for four years. 3. By now, there will be so much goodwill flowing from one country to the other that there will be regular meetings between the two institutions to discuss constructive strategies of co-operation. Here is an issue that needs urgent attention: some of the separations of fragments between the two museums are downright absurd. The front part of the torso of Poseidon which dominates the west pediment is in Athens, the remainder of the torso is in London. These fragments, and other similar examples (see our illustration) need to be reunited permanently, some in London, some in Athens. The current situation is risible, and profoundly disrespectful of the works. 4. The true maturity of the Acropolis Museum will come when it, too, can look beyond parochial concerns, and discuss the culture of the whole world as well as of its own backyard. It should establish an exchange programme with the British Museum that would see Greek treasures swapped for Assyrian, Egyptian and Roman counterparts. There is no better way of thinking about the whole world than to study the ancient art of the whole world. 5. There is no substantive fifth point, other than to say that once this level of cultural co-operation occurs, anything can happen. Public opinion shifts, inconceivable ideas become suddenly acceptable. Who would have thought, in the heat of the Cultural Revolution, that a few games of ping-pong would help eventually to bring China into the capitalist fold? The history of the Parthenon sculptures is not over by a long way. ………………………………………………………………………………………

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26 thoughts on “The new Acropolis Museum

  1. Hi Marthaki it was so kind to write all these nice things about my blog ! This is the extra bonus for a blogger’s hard life 😉 Thank you about the link! yes it is very interesting…
    Σε ευχαριστώ και πάλι και welcome !!
    p.s βλέπω δεν εχεις link ελπίζω σύντομα to join the club😉

  2. For me, the issue of the Elgin marbles is a mega British crime against the Greek people, civilization and at large against humanity.
    Imagine some Greek looter being “authorized” by a theoretical conqueror of the British isles to remove the Stonehedge structures or any other holy relics from Britain. What would be missing would be a part of the British psyche, imprisoned in a foreign dungeon. As far as the British museum is concerned, it represents the ugliest and most immoral collection of “other people’s holy artifacts and civilazations”. If the exhibits were to return to the lands of their creators, the only remaining thing would be the empty building…

    • have you actually examined what the hell you yourself have said?! if all artifacts that exist in museums were returned to the ‘lands of their creators’ then every museum would be empty. the acropolis would perhaps not be empty but it would be devoid of educating their patrons about world culture. the point of a museum is to expand the cultural education of those who visit and a part of this is to be exposed to worldy artifacts that are from other countries. the fact that the elgin marbles exist in the british museum today is a part of history and actally documents an hitorical event. if you need a precedent for this then just look at the egyptian artifacts that reside and are owned by the louvre in paris, or the turkish artifacts that exist in berlin. all were stolen and obtained somewhat illegally but the journey and the story attached to these events is an historical event in itself. putting ownership aside, i think you are missing the point about the diverse learning experience a museum can offer when filled with artifacts from around the world!

      • Despite the wording of your comment’s preface didn’t predispose me positively I would like to remind you that we did not ask the 50,000 Greek antiquities that the British Museum exhibits but the Elgin Marbles which are part of the temple …..for obvious reasons. I would not wish to go into details because I’ve already realised you are quite upset about the whole issue to a degree that I start to be suspicious about your identity. Perhaps your real name is Neil MacGregor and you are signing as fish (your blog persona) 😉 In this case it’s my honour to have you as commentator in my blog 🙂

  3. It is a truth universally acknowledged the obsession of the rich countries about the terms such ‘cost’ ,’value’ and generally the term ‘money’ . Based on these terms which they value so much they have to re examine the status of their museums and their obligations to the underdeveloped countries where by all means they have looted all their antiquities without any cost. The Greek proverb is suited perfectly their situation ‘mine is mine and yours is mine’…. It is time now for a serious consideration about their responsibilities towards the less fortunate and about diminishing their arrogance towards them.

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