October 29, 2007

University of Sydney’s Parthenon Project

Posted at 2:03 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, International Association

The University of Sydney’s Parthenon Project has its own website here.

The project has also been the basis for two articles in the Sydney University Museums News, one by David Hill, chair of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, The other article arguing for retention of the sculptures is by Dyfri Williams of the British Museum.

Sydney University Museums News

Sydney University Museums News
Issue 13
October 2007
Who owns the marbles?
The debate hits Sydney

The Parthenon in Athens is one of the world’s most famous and instantly recognisable buildings. It is an iconic cultural symbol of the modern Greek state, and a reminder of a shared cultural heritage that reaches back to the 5th century BC; a defining period in the history of democracy, theatre, architecture, philosophy and more.

During the first decade of the 19th century, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, was granted permission by the Sultan to remove decorative features from what was already a building in ruins. These marble sculptures and friezes are now in the British Museum in London.

In response to the growing demand for the return of these sculptures to Athens, Sydney University Museums has asked two of the leading figures on either side of the debate to comment. Dyfri Williams, the Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, urges the need for co-operation and collaboration, while David Hill, Chairman of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, is more strident in his demand for “the British to right one of history’s great wrongs and return the wonderful Parthenon sculptures to their home”. Their articles, ‘Sharing your marbles’ and ‘Give us your marbles’ appear inside.

In October, Sydney plays host to Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, President for the Organization of the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, where the Parthenon Marbles will be displayed should they ever be loaned or returned by the British Museum. Also visiting are Maria Ioannidou, the Director of the Acropolis Restoration Service and Nikolaos Toganidis, the architect responsible for the Parthenon Restoration Project. Two of the highlights of their visit are a public discussion forum, ‘The Parthenon: Who Owns Cultural Heritage?’ at the Seymour Centre on 28 October, and a public lecture by Professor Pandermalis in the Nicholson Museum on 30 October.

To further highlight issues relating to the Parthenon, an exhibition of images of the restorations and of the New Acropolis Museum will be on display in the Nicholson Museum from mid October until the Christmas break.

Give us your marbles
By David Hill, Chairman of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures

Later this year Athens will see the opening of the magnificent new Acropolis Museum, arguably one of the most significant buildings to be built in the city for the past two thousand years. The Museum, which is located below the south east corner of the Acropolis, will house all the surviving ancient artifacts from the Acropolis – including the sculptures of the Parthenon.

It has been designed to house the sculptures on the top floor and these sculptures will be presented in exactly the same configuration and position as they sat on the Parthenon. The Temple itself can be seen from the Museum, through vast glass windows, across the Acropolis.

About half the surviving 200-odd pieces of marble sculptures from the Parthenon are in the British Museum, having been stripped from the temple by the staff of Lord Elgin, who was the British Ambassador to the region around 1800. Elgin had intended the sculptures to adorn his family estate in Scotland but in 1816, when facing severe financial problems, he sold the collection to the British Government. The Government passed them on to the British Museum.

Most of the other surviving sculptures are still in Athens, although a few smaller pieces and fragments are held in a variety of European museums, including those in Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, Palermo, Munich, Strasburg and the Vatican. A small fragment from the Parthenon frieze was returned to Athens by the Heidelberg Museum last year.

Elgin took the sculptures that were in the best condition, leaving those that had been ravaged by time and events. He also left the entire sculptured west frieze, because the Temple’s heavy marble superstructure was still intact at this end of the building and too difficult to move. To remove much of the marble frieze, Elgin used special saws to cut them from the building and in doing so permanently destroyed much of the building’s structure.

In some cases Elgin took part of a statue piece, leaving the other half in Athens. The shoulders and breast of the magnificent, twice-life-size statue of the god Poseidon from the west pediment of the Parthenon is in the British Museum; the lower part of the torso remains in Athens.

The Parthenon sculptures are among the world’s finest surviving ancient art works. Built in the middle of the 5th century BC, the Parthenon is unique in a number of respects and represents a pinnacle of human achievement. It is also symbolic of the great cultural achievements of the time; in art, architecture, science, mathematics, theatre, philosophy and democracy.

It was the most decorated of all ancient Greek temples. Around the outside and on all four sides there were a total of 92 sculptured panels, or metopes, depicting a number of scenes reflecting the struggle of good over evil. It was the only ancient Greek temple with sculptured metopes on all four sides of the building. On the architrave inside the building sat the magnificent frieze that ran for 160 metres around all four walls, depicting a procession that culminates with the twelve Olympian gods seated on the sacred east end of the building.

In the triangular pediments at each end of the building were about 40 statues-in-the- round. At the centre of the east end was depicted the birth of Athena springing from the head of Zeus. At the western end the centre depicted a struggle between Athena and Poseidon for control of Attica.

The Greek Government and many supporters around the world have been calling for Britain to return the Elgin Collection so that the entire surviving work can be reunited in its original setting to allow the original narrative to be appreciated.

By not agreeing to return the sculptures Britain is increasingly out of step with modern museum practice around the world. No one would argue that all the objects in museums should be returned to their country of origin but there is now almost universal acceptance of the principle that items of special significance should be repatriated. In 1997 a survey of the British Museums Association revealed that 97 per cent of their members supported the principle of repatriating cultural property in certain circumstances.

The British Museum has no reasonable grounds for retaining the collection. On their website they say that the British Museum is a ‘universal’ museum and that in London more people are able to see the collection. However, less than one million people a year now visit the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum to see the Parthenon sculptures, less than half the number that visit the Acropolis in Athens. With the opening of the new Acropolis museum we can expect the number of visitors to further increase.

Throughout Britain and around the world there has been growing support for the return of the Parthenon sculptures. Surveys of public opinion in Britain in recent times have consistently demonstrated overwhelming support for their return and the parliaments and political leaders of many nations, including USA, Russia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Turkey and a number of European countries have joined the call for Britain to return the marbles.

The British Government should be commended for having initiated the return of the Nazi’s stolen artwork to their original owners, and more recently the return of aboriginal human remains to their original communities. We now look to the British to right one of history’s great wrongs and return the wonderful Parthenon sculptures to their home.

Sharing your marbles
By Dyfri Williams, Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum

Museums may be divided into two types: those that attempt to serve one particular location and those that attempt to serve the world by including all places and all people. Both types are vital to our understanding of the material remains of the various cultures of the world.

The fact that history has shared the Parthenon sculptures between more than one location and more than one nation (in fact, seven in all) is particularly significant. It allows for a plurality of approaches and an extraordinary diversity of visitor response. The sculptures can speak in their Athenian context, among other things wrought, one might say, for an ancient imperialist city supported by slave-labour (rightly in the case of ancient Athens). In other museums that do their best to introduce people from all over the world to the cultures of others, although they are sometimes accused of being full of imperial loot (wrongly in the case of the British Museum), the sculptures help to reveal interconnections and differences, and to allow perhaps for a new understanding in a spirit of tolerance.

What is needed now is a greater sharing of knowledge and understanding of the Parthenon and its sculptures in order to help everyone to see them better. This is best done through collaboration not confrontation. It is hardly a solution to display in a spectacular new museum “veiled” (and thus illegible) casts of sculptures currently elsewhere in a not so veiled attempt at blackmail. Nor does it seem suitable to destroy a listed Art Deco building just so that the view from the café (not the gallery) of that museum can be unimpeded. But such are the stories that journalists love. Our aim should be to make all the pieces everywhere, those in the various museums round the world, those many sadly still on the building and, as best we can, those sculptures and parts of sculptures that are tragically lost forever (some 50 percent), available to all, in a modern fashion and for free.

Much important work has been done in Athens in recent decades by scholars in piecing together the fragments of the sculptures found scattered all over the Acropolis rock, most especially by the current Ephoros of the Acropolis, Dr Alexandros Mantis, on the metopes from the south side of the Parthenon. This astonishing research needs to be better known by all.

With the possibility of inspiring a future collaborative project, the British Museum began an assessment of the quality of three dimensional scanning, the basic tool for reconstructing and manipulating the sculptures virtually. It was decided to concentrate on one metope (South IV), which is divided between the British Museum and the National Museum in Copenhagen, and, at the same time, make sure there was an endproduct that could be delivered to the public as a short computer-generated film. In this way, we could both reveal the potential of the technology and, while telling the metope’s “modern” history, recreate its original condition, complete with metal attachments and painted colour.

A still shot from this new computer-generated film now on display in London (and shortly also in the museum gallery in Copenhagen; and at Harvard in the special exhibition Painted Gods) shows the heads in Copenhagen set in place, the pieces of the figures that were drawn in 1674 by Jacques Carré but destroyed in the terrible explosion of 1687 restored, and the obvious other missing elements reconstructed on the basis of better preserved examples among the metopes.

The lost metal wreath on the youth’s head and the sword in his hand have also been restored. As for colour, the only actual remains of pigment that have been precisely located, independently confirmed and subjected to scientific analysis were found in recent years on the triglyphs and on the raised band on the upper side of a metope. Both were dark blue.

Other visual sources, however, including sculptures, terracottas and vase-paintings, have been used to provide some sort of a coloured reconstruction. One specific issue of colour may perhaps be resolvable – the colour of the architectural background to the sculpture of the metope. A number of nineteenthcentury architects and artists, in trying to restore the Parthenon’s original polychromy, gave the colour of the metope ground as either blue or red, the latter being the favoured choice. For example, a red metope ground was chosen for the otherwise uncoloured exterior of the extraordinary replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. Nevertheless, a white or entirely unpainted background now seems the most likely solution, especially on the analogy of the wonderful, painted Macedonian tombs at Vergina and elsewhere, all fairly recent discoveries, which reveal blue triglyphs, white metopes with a blue band at the top, and red bands below and above. This solution has been used in the film to briefly explore how colour affected the viewer’s ability to understand the sculptures from a distance.

The creation of such a didactic film has led us to question and test many traditional assumptions about the metopes. The creation of a larger project would enable further collaborative research and certainly new and important results. Such an endeavour, combining scholars from all over the world, could be expanded to cover the whole Parthenon and form the core of an exciting multi-level educational tool. But this requires collaboration and support. Let us leave behind all the posturing and sniping, as discussed and do something of real benefit for all.

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