August 26, 2004
The Marbles might not be back for the Olympics, but the event has created a lot of additional publicity worldwide for the case for their return.
Posted 8/25/2004 3:22 PM
Ancient art at center of dispute
By Patrick O’Driscoll, USA TODAY
ATHENS — At the foot of the Acropolis, a construction hole bigger than the Parthenon has come to symbolize empty diplomatic dreams, as broken as the hilltop ruins.
With the opening of the Athens Olympics, Greece hoped to open a new Acropolis Museum as well. Its crowning feature: A top-floor gallery of glass to display the reunited “Parthenon Marbles,” the priceless friezes and sculptures that once adorned the walls of the 2,500-year-old temple of Athena.
But Olympic goodwill — and delays on the $110 million project — couldn’t break a two-century impasse between Greece and Great Britain. Greek officials are back in the diplomatic trenches, still hoping for accord by the museum’s 2006 debut. But the Brits insist the carvings are safer and do greater good in London.
Each country holds roughly half of the fabled works of art. Greece, pleading for repatriation of its heritage, wants Britain’s 53 marble blocks of friezes and 19 statues back here. The British Museum, the world’s oldest, says it has been a better caretaker. It also says the sculptures do more for Greece on free display to 4.6 million annual visitors to the museum, where they share space with the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies and a stone monolith from Easter Island.
“Modern Greece could have no better ambassador abroad than the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum,” says the museum’s 11-page position paper.
Greece had hoped the prospect of Olympic visitors to the new museum seeing empty space for the Marbles would shame the Brits into sending them back. But the project didn’t get a green light until this summer.
The previous Greek government had proposed a long-term loan from Britain and the inclusion of an annex of the British Museum within the new Acropolis Museum. But British skeptics claim Greece wants “perpetual removal.” Greece denies that.
The Hellenic Ministry of Culture is diplomatic. “We would have been very happy with a statement of goodwill, which for the moment hasn’t come,” says spokeswoman Elena Korka. She says Greece’s new government needs to meet with Britain to restart discussions.
Hard feelings date back to deep differences on how and why the Marbles ended up in Britain.
The British Museum says Lord Elgin, the diplomat for whom the Marbles also are named, saved them from a Parthenon crumbling in neglect and ruin, buying them from the Ottomans who ruled Greece at the time. In 1816, Elgin sold them to the museum.
Greece and its supporters say Elgin plundered the Parthenon to decorate his new estate back home and that the Turkish occupiers illegally sold the relics. When Greece won independence a few years later, it demanded the Marbles back.
The British Museum doesn’t deny “the importance of the sculptures for Greek national heritage,” but says they have become, “like all great works of art, the patrimony of all humanity.”
Despite Olympics distractions, Athens hasn’t forgotten the issue.
Amid herds of spectator buses decorated in bright logos of Games sponsors, a few carry just six words on a sepia background:
“The Parthenon Marbles Belong to Athens.”
- More delays for New Acropolis Museum : April 15, 2004
- New Acropolis Museum opening date : February 13, 2009
- Greece & Britain spar over Marbles : June 23, 2004
- Greek Prime Minister tours New Acropolis Museum site : October 10, 2006
- Greece should capitalise on the New Acropolis Museum : October 8, 2007
- Huge support for Marbles return shown in new poll : January 12, 2004
- Greece urges gesture on Elgin Marbles : August 16, 2004
- Marbles Reunited – a new exhibition about the Parthenon Marbles : January 2, 2003