New Acropolis Museum – Parthenon Marbles: give stolen marbles back
“The Marbles are calling back the Marbles”
Museum director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis said
the opening of the museum provides an opportunity to correct “an act of barbarism” in the sculptures’ removal.
Losing your marbles
Published 18 June 2009
Observations on the Parthenon Marbles
A little before noon on Saturday 13 June, in the heart of Athens, the classical carvings known as the Parthenon Marbles were removed from their protective cellophane, to be glimpsed for the first time in the New Acropolis Museum. There in the upper gallery, within view of the sacred rock itself, the icons of ancient Greece will remain.
Antonis Samaras, the tall, urbane Greek minister of culture, ushered me in to see the sculptures, a week before the official opening of their new €130m (£110m) home.
“You are the first one to see them without cellophane,” he said, and added, “and now you can see why there is such a big ‘why’.”
The New Acropolis Museum is a crowning achievement of modern Greek culture – completed after more than 30 years of procrastination and acrimonious debate. It is luminous, cavernous and designed to echo the Golden Age temples. There are few places as stupendous as this. Samaras’s tour, almost two years after my last visit to the then half-finished museum, was a treat I had long looked forward to. And there I was, standing before the sculptures.
“They’re awful, eye-poppingly awful,” I blurted, as Samaras walked around exclaiming: “This one’s English, that one’s authentic, this one’s in the British Museum, that one’s the real thing.”
With more than 60 per cent of Phidias’s monumental frieze on display in Bloomsbury, thanks to Lord Elgin, Athens has had to make do with giant plaster-cast copies, acquired from the British Museum in the 19th century, to narrate the full tale of the frieze’s great Panathenaic Procession.
Museum curators had initially contemplated “touching up” the casts with a patina to make them seem more authentic, but officials finally stuck with the deeply unsettling whiter-than-white finish. Interspersed with Iktinos’s exquisite originals, they stand out like eyesores.
“One of the most important elements of this museum is to show, in total clarity, the truth,” said Samaras. “And the truth is that something is missing and that times have changed, and that even most Britons now believe the marbles should be reunited here in Athens.” Looking up at the light-speckled Parthenon, he continued: “Finally, this demolishes the charge that we don’t have a proper place to display and preserve the sculptures.”
The world’s most famous frieze, amputated against the backdrop of the temple it once adorned, has a peculiar effect. If you are an art lover you want to scream at the pity of it all. If you are English you want to curl up beneath one of the marbles in embarrassment and cry out:
“Give them back!”
A Home for the Marbles
Source: New York Times By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS Published: June 18, 2009
LONDON — This weekend, the new museum of the Acropolis will open its doors in Athens, in a striking modern building situated at the foot of the rock itself. For a long time, it has not really been possible for a visitor to Greece to visit the buildings on that most famous of all hills, and also the sculpture that used to adorn them in the days of the cult of Pallas Athena. Atmospheric pollution and structural weakness necessitated the protective removal of a good number of the statues and carvings, and bureaucratic and political delays kept on putting off the day when a serious gallery for their exhibition could be provided. Now, however, it will be possible for a tourist to walk around the temples of the Acropolis — which themselves have been undergoing an extensive and careful restoration — and then to stroll around a museum, within sight of the temples, where the carvings of Phidias and others are at last again on display. I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of both sites earlier this year. I think that nobody can fail to be impressed by the combined efforts of Bernard Schumi, the Swiss architect, and Dimitrios Pandermalis, the museum’s director. The crucial floor is the top one. Here, all the available treasures of the Parthenon have been lovingly and logically arranged in a gallery that is layered differently from other levels so as to replicate and mirror the layout of the temple, up at which it directs the visitor’s gaze. Given all the hazards of time and chance and weather, and all the vicissitudes that the Parthenon has suffered down the milennia, this is the nearest that one can currently come to a full enjoyment of the aesthetic whole. But that’s where the rub lies. A huge portion of “the available treasures” of the Parthenon have been segregated from the main body and cannot be seen in harmony with it. I am referring to the so-called “Elgin marbles”: the huge chunks of the frieze, the pediment and the metopes (panels) that were quite literally “ripped off” from the Parthenon in the early 19th century, and carried off to Britain, where they were supposed to decorate Lord Elgin’s private home in Scotland. Only his bankruptcy saved them from this fate, and he contrived to sell them to the British government, which holds them to this day in the British Museum in London. The “Elgin line,” of sculptural partition and annexation, runs through a poem in stone that was carved as a unity and that tells a single story. It even cuts through figures and characters in that story. The body of the goddess Iris is now in London, while her head is in Athens. The front part of the torso of Poseidon is in London and the rear part is in Athens. This is grotesque. Recently, President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy paid a visit to the Acropolis Museum in order to return a fragment of the frieze — the foot of the goddess Artemis — that has been sitting for years in the Salinas Museum in Palermo. His generous gesture in helping reunify the masterpiece of the sculptor Phidias has been equaled by the Vatican museum, which has returned the head of a young man from panel No. 5 of the north frieze, and by the museum at Heidelberg, which has given back the foot of a young man playing the lyre on panel No. 8. But, still, huge expanses of the sculpture, with its honey-colored patina warmed by centuries of Attic sun, are represented in absentia by a doleful white plaster-cast simulation of the exiled brothers and sisters. How long can the British authorities cling jealously to the loot of their former ambassador to a long-vanished Turkish empire? (Greece was a vassal state when Lord Elgin’s men showed up with their crowbars and cranes.) For a long time, the British Museum did have a couple of plausible arguments in its quiver. It could try to maintain that restoring the marbles to Athens would set a precedent that might empty great museums of their collections. And it could call attention to the fact that the Greeks had nowhere to house the sculptural marvels. The first argument was never as strong as it sounded: Where is the court that decides that an aesthetic gesture is a “precedent”? Have the Hittites and the Babylonians now besieged the Vatican for the return of every other treasure ever moved? Don’t be silly, in other words. The only precedent that has any value is the good example set by Italian and German museums which understand that it makes no sense to wrench apart, and keep apart, a magnificent work of art. As to the second objection, having dithered for years in a way that drove all of us Philhellenes nearly crazy, the Greeks have now excelled themselves in creating a place worthy of its breath-taking contents. It is not a question of denuding one great and old European museum, so much as of completing another great and new one. The British people, when asked, have repeatedly shown that they want to do the right thing and reunify the sculpture. It is impossible to visit Athens and not yearn for the day when Britain decides to right an ancient wrong and show that a beautiful artefact is more than the mere sum of its parts.
Christopher Hitchens is the author of ‘‘Imperial Spoils: The Case for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’’ and a columnist for Vanity Fair.
The “Elgin line,” of sculptural partition and annexation, runs through a poem in stone that was carved as a unity and that tells a single story. It even cuts through figures and characters in that story. The body of the goddess Iris is now in London, while her head is in Athens. The front part of the torso of Poseidon is in London and the rear part is in Athens. This is grotesque. Why the British Museum cannot recognize the endgame is anyone’s guess.