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Will the New Acropolis Museum herald the return of the Parthenon Sculptures?

The New Acropolis Museum represents a momentous turning point in the story of the Elgin Marbles – and perhaps the most persuasive argument for their return, to emerge in recent years.

Financial Times [1]

Friday Jun 13 2003
Sharp end of civilisation
By Peter Aspden

They arrived in London in 1811, cracked and battered, but, like an asylum seeker with suspect credentials, they had to wait for another five years before they found a new home, in a brick-built shed in Bloomsbury.

Within months, they became one of the city’s most compelling attractions. One admirer, the painter Benjamin Haydon, wrote with amazement that 1,200 people had visited them in a single day. He liked to record conversations in his diary: “We overheard two common-looking decent men say to each other, ‘How broken they are, a’ant they?’ ‘Yes,’ said the other, ‘but how like life’.”

“Thus began the long exile of the Parthenon sculptures, hence forth to be known as the Elgin Marbles, after the Scottish aristocrat who removed them from their Athenian home and brought them to London.

Today they sit in the somewhat insipid light of the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery and attract considerably more than 1,200 people a day – some five million a year visit the museum, and the Marbles are second only to the Egyptian mummies in popularity.

They have been repaired, restored and (controversially) cleaned; but they still look like life, and they still form an integral part of the museum’s extraordinary collection of antiquities.

Meanwhile, back in their homeland… at the foot of the Acropolis, in the shadow of the denuded Parthenon, a flurry of activity marks the laying of the foundations of a new building.

This will be the new Acropolis Museum, designed by the French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi. Its distinguishing characteristic is a glass rectangle on top of the building, designed in the same proportions and at the same angle to the hill as the Parthenon.

The glass hall is due to open in time for the start of the Olympic Games in Athens next August. It has been designed to house the Elgin Marbles, those very treasures that have not left Bloomsbury for 200 years.

In his office overlooking the building works, the museum’s director, Dimitrios Pandermalis, shows me architectural sketches scattered on his desk, all of which contain drawings of the exiled sculptures in their proposed new home.

He moves to the other side of the office to show me a plaster cast of part of the Parthenon frieze, two riders reining in their bucking horses, and illustrates how the lighting will highlight the work’s masterful detailing in the new museum.

It is part of the west frieze, almost all of which was left behind in Athens by Elgin, and I say that this cast is presumably taken from the Athenian collection. “No, no, no. This is the only block in the west frieze that is in London,” and he lets out a laugh that is at the same time rueful and mischievous.

It is not news that the Greeks want their Marbles back. The argument has broken out sporadically ever since their removal, but the case for their return was given added impetus in the early 1980s by the country’s charismatic minister of culture Melina Mercouri, a former actress whose performance as the raucous, hedonistic prostitute in Never on Sunday catapulted modern Greece -the Dionysian antithesis of fusty, Apollonian ancient Greece – into the world’s cultural consciousness.

From the start, Mercouri, the granddaughter of a mayor of Athens, cleverly harnessed her personal allure to the populist thrust of Greece’s new socialist government, headed by Andreas Papandreou. But the Greek case had substance too, largely focusing on the very acquisition of the sculptures.

Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, freshly appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte at Constantinople and art lover, had originally planned merely to make sketches and casts of the ruins at the Acropolis.

When his illustrator, the Italian Giovanni Batista Lusieri, was having trouble in getting access to the site, he asked for a firman, or authorisation, from the Porte to help his cause. Elgin requested a document which included the freedom to take away “qualche pezzi di pietra con inscrizioni, e figure” (“some pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures thereon”).

On this authorisation, Elgin set to work, collecting some pieces that had already been removed from the Parthenon and lay damaged, but also using marble saws to remove works from the building itself. He ended up taking 56 of 97 surviving blocks of the frieze, 15 of the 64 metopes and 19 out of 28 preserved figures from the pediments.

From the Greek point of view, the apparent flimsiness of the authorisation was one thing; the fact that it was issued by the Ottomans, who were coming to the end of their 400-year-old occupation of Greece and had demonstrably cared little for that country’s ancient monuments, was quite another.

There was revolution in the air at the beginning of the 19th century, which did not go unnoticed in Elgin’s party. His architect, Thomas Harrison, was forced to write an anxious letter to his employer: “The opportunity of the present good understanding between us and the Porte should not be lost, as it appears very uncertain, from the fluctuating state of Europe, how long this part of Greece may remain under its present master – Greece may be called maiden Ground.”

Mercouri used the ambiguous nature of Elgin’s agreement with the Porte – an ambiguity not unnaturally denied by the British Museum – and the political resonance of the Ottoman occupation as the cornerstone of her emotive appeal for the return of the Marbles, which talked unashamedly of their sentimental significance to the Greek people.

But her arguments carried little weight with the museum’s director Sir David Wilson, and their exchanges went on to become almost comically hostile. Mercouri asked to visit the Marbles in London; Wilson said it was unusual to allow burglars to “case the joint” in advance. Mercouri accused the British of cultural imperialism; Wilson said the appeal for restitution amounted to “cultural fascism – like burning books, that’s what Hitler did”.

Gradually Mercouri, and the Greeks, became resigned to there being no reconciliation between the Greek and British positions. On one visit to London, giving the Herbert Read lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, when she had been expected to restate a case that had begun to become all too familiar, she surprised all present by not referring to the Marbles at all.

Until her very last sentence: “Let me close by once more apologising to you and to my translator for my poor accent. I hear it and am reminded of what Dylan Thomas said of a British broadcaster: ‘He speaks as if he had the Elgin Marbles in his mouth.’ Thank you and goodnight.” Wry humour had displaced Mercouri’s righteous passion, and the game seemed to be up.

The award of the 2004 Olympic Games to Athens in 1997 gave fresh encouragement to those who hoped for a dramatic gesture of goodwill from the British Museum. A new plan to ask for the return of the Marbles began to be formulated. But this time it would be different.

The new minister of culture, Evangelos Venizelos, realised that to dispute the ownership of the Marbles would make no headway with the opponents of restitution so he tried a new tack.

He decided to concentrate on one line of argument only: that for the sake of artistic integrity, the Marbles should be reunified into the complete cycle, as they were conceived, and with the building from which they were taken.

In other words, they should be returned to Athens, but it wouldn’t matter who owned them – they could be sent to Greece as a loan. In addition, Greece promised to forsake any claims on any other antiquity held in the museums of the world; to provide a series of loans of its most treasured objects to the British Museum and to provide a world-class museum that would provide a visual link between the Parthenon and its sculptures.

I meet Venizelos, a large, animated man, in his modest office at the ministry of culture behind Athens’ national archaeological museum. A constitutional lawyer with a reputation for his eloquent speeches, he stresses that the new Greek position is taken on behalf “not of the Greek nation, nor the Greek people, but of the monument itself” and says the issue of actual ownership has become almost irrelevant.

In contrast to Mercouri’s approach, he takes pains to “respect the dignity of British sensibilities, of the British arts community, of the British museum community”.

Most remarkably, he says that the Parthenon gallery in the new Acropolis museum could even be run as an “annexe” of the British Museum.

“It is time to rethink the role of the international museum at the beginning of the 21st century, which is absolutely different from the museum of two centuries ago which collected objects only to be concentrated in London or New York or Paris,” he says.

“I have my own opinions about the ownership issue and the historical responsibilities of Lord Elgin and the British parliament. But I must respect the official position of the British Museum.”

Up to a point. When I ask Venizelos about a recent proposal by Neil MacGregor, current director of the British Museum, that the Greeks use copies or digital representations of the sculptures held in London, he says with some irritation that it is “not acceptable, not just for us but in the eyes of international public opinion, to organise an exhibition of copies” – he almost spits the word out – “in the shadow of the Acropolis hill”.

And when I ask him if he has any sympathy with the British Museum’s position, which emphasises its importance as a testament to the Enlightenment project, his response is swift and pointed: “It is not a testament to the Enlightenment project, it is a testament to the colonial concept of culture and the arts.

It is not possible to understand an archaeological item out of its context, it is not possible to understand the construction of the Parthenon without the life and atmosphere and historical context of Athens.

This mechanical approach, of bringing different archaeological items of high interest to London, is a colonial approach. It is not the approach of the Enlightenment. The exhibition of the Parthenon Marbles out of their context in London is an artificial event. It is not a natural event.”

I read out an extract from a House of Lords debate of a few years ago in which a member warned against the return of the Marbles, lest “the volatile Greeks… start hurling bombs around”. How does that make him feel? Venizelos laughs, and offers me “an indirect answer”.

“Greece is a peaceful and stable European country, at the core of the European Union. I would say that in London, or in New York, it is very important right now to be thinking about the need to protect the cultural heritage of an important area like Mesopotamia.”

I visit Neil MacGregor – another lawyer, turned art historian – in his Bloomsbury office a few days after my return from Athens, and he is indeed thinking about Mesopotamia: the British Museum has been at the heart of the mission to trace the antiquities looted from the Museum of Baghdad.

When I wish him well on a forthcoming trip to Iraq, he expresses his own irritation that, at a time like this, the Greeks should be expending so much energy on such a “self-indulgent” project as the restitution of the Marbles. It is evident that he is no more sympathetic than Sir David Wilson to the arguments for their return.

For MacGregor, the shift in the Greek position is of little significance: “I’m glad [the Greeks] recognise the legitimacy of the museum’s ownership but their ambition is still the perpetual removal of the Parthenon sculptures.

But given that it is not possible to reconstruct the original work of art in its entirety, nor even to reconstruct the sculptural decoration because so much of it has been lost completely, what we are talking about is in which European museum of which rich European country are [the Marbles] best displayed, and how should they be displayed for the maximum public benefit? That is the only question.”

He says there remains a “clear and understandable” divergence between the two positions. “All the people who work in Greek museums are essentially archaeologists and you would expect any archaeologist to privilege original site and original context, and the location of the object at the particular moment of its making. But if you are a cultural historian it is a different question because a whole set of other contexts become important.

The context of the Greece which was defining itself against the Persian Empire; the Greece which was drawing its cultural inspiration from what it was seeing in Egypt and Assyria; the Greece which actually later shaped Roman culture – that kind of story can only emerge in a universal museum.

“Put very crudely, it is an accident of history that roughly half of [the Marbles] are here and half in Athens, and that seems to me to be pretty ideal because you can show these objects in two completely different stories.

I have great difficulty in seeing why one story should be privileged at the total exclusion of the other, which is the Greek position.”

But the Marbles tell the story of the birth of democracy – is that not the most important story of all?

“The British Museum is the monument to the European Enlightenment, to the ideals of free and informed world citizenship. The ideals represented in the British Museum are every bit as important to the world as the ideals of 5th century [BC] Athens. They are all part of the same thing.”

And then MacGregor says something that is perhaps his most definitive statement yet on the issue: “I would argue that the life of these objects as part of the story of the Parthenon is over. They can’t go back to the Parthenon. They are now part of another story.”

What about the aesthetic argument, the sentimental argument, what about taking the Marbles back to the place of their conception, back to the unique light of Attica?

MacGregor’s response borders on the scathing. “Well, every place has got its own light. They were never meant to be white sculptures under the unique light of Attica. They were never meant to look the way they do now.

“The unique light of Attica was shining on polychrome sculptures, but nobody is saying we should repaint them in their original colours.”

How does he feel about the new, half-empty Acropolis museum? “It is their decision. But I find it startling that a European government should build something to house something that it acknowledges belongs legally to the national collection of another European country.”

Surely, I ask finally, there is some sympathy with the Greeks wanting to reclaim antiquities which were taken away by a British aristocrat with the authority of an Ottoman decree? MacGregor remains unmoved: “That is a Braveheart view.”

I talk to Bernard Tschumi briefly before his lecture on his new Acropolis Museum at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. He says the return of the Marbles to Athens was a key part of his brief when designing the Parthenon hall, emphasising the importance of displaying the frieze in its original configuration, outward-looking and in sequence.

“I am convinced it will happen,” he says.

“I just don’t know when.” Tschumi, like Pandermalis, does not like to discuss the possibility of the half-empty hall.

There has been more goodwill expressed on both sides of this contentious issue in recent years. Yet it seems finally irreconcilable, this clash between the stark, literal light of Athens and the diffused, metaphorical light emanating from the “sooty vitals”, as the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis put it, of Bloomsbury.

It is impossible not to be moved – in heart and mind, respectively – by both stories. As Dimitrios Pandermalis leans over the sketches of the new museum, he confirms to me that, if there is no restitution, there will be no replicas, no copies, no virtual-reality displays in the Parthenon hall; just a series of numbers in place of the missing pieces.

“It is,” he says a little wearily, “a matter of authenticity. The Acropolis has had a troubled history. Its first destruction was by the Persians, then there was the bombardment [of the Parthenon] by the Venetians, and now it seems the right time to gather everything together again. To correct the destructions. To correct history.”

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer