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Why it’s time to lose the marbles

The New Acropolis Museum [1] is one of the most high profile cultural projects in Europe in the last decade. The British Museum still claims that its existence does not change anything though in the argument for the reunification of the Elgin Marbles.

London Daily News [2]

09 July, 2009 18:30 (GMT +01:00)
Why It’s Time We Lost ‘Our’ Marbles
By Gemma Brosnan

It has been described as one of the most high profile cultural projects undertaken in Europe this decade, costing over €120m after 33 years of planning.

Designed by Swiss-born/New York based architect, Bernard Tschumi and his Greek associate, Michael Photiadis, The New Acropolis museum opened in Athens last month to much fanfare, presenting a spectacular modern building boasting 226,000 square feet of glass, 150,000 square feet of display space spanning five floors and 4,000 artifacts.

The museum displays the Parthenon sculptures and other finds from the Acropolis hill, fulfilling the promise of Greece’s first Socialist culture minister, the late Melina Mercouri, that Greece would one day build a suitable home for the Parthenon frieze and other exiled masterpieces of classical art.

The Parthenon was built between 447-432 B.C., at the height of ancient Athens’ glory, in honour of the city’s patron goddess, Athena and despite its conversion into a Christian church and Turkish occupation from the 15th century, it survived virtually intact until a massive explosion caused by a Venetian cannon shot in 1687.

Visitors can now view the Parthenon from the Acropolis balconies and see archaeological remains through spacious, glass floors streaming endless open light, making it a serious rival for the British Museum.

The comparisons between the two historical heavyweights, however, are far from friendly.

Long before The New Acropolis’ inauguration ceremony, the most important statement causing a controversial frenzy had nothing to do with what the museum has, but more painfully, what it hasn’t.

Greece’s achievement in creating a world-class sanctuary befitting the goal of promoting the aesthetic beauty of the Parthenon’s friezes in their entirety, is currently being tainted by the much fought over Elgin Marbles, removed by Lord Thomas Elgin (British Ambassador to Constantinople 1799-1803) in the early 1800s, while Greece was still an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire.

These actions were controversial from the very beginning. Even before all the sculptures – soon known as the Elgin Marbles – went on display in London, Lord Byron attacked Elgin in stinging verses, lamenting (in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’) how the antiquities of Greece had been defaced by British hands:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed By British hands, which it had best behoved To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved, And once again thy hapless bosom gored, And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Now Greece would obviously like them back to complete the beauty of the historical displays, fuelling an international debate over who owns cultural property, which continues to rage in an inferno-like fashion, due to the devoted claims to the striking sculptures on both sides.

For the Greeks, the matter is simple. The main recurring British argument previously trotted out for not returning the sculptures in the past, was that Athens lacked a suitable place to display them.

Although atmospheric pollution rules out placing the sculptures back on the temple itself, the Parthenon gallery in the new museum is 300 metres and a single glance away from the temple, cementing the idea that architectural sculpture should be displayed as close as possible to the building it once decorated. Not in another country.

This is clearly the natural choice for anyone without a vested interest and a much stronger artistic point than anything the Brits can come up with.

Emotions were running high at the opening ceremony for the museum with the current Greek culture minister, Antonis Samaras, making a very public point of condemning the 19th-century “looting” of treasures from the Acropolis, as both sides continue to vocalise and justify their views.

His audience included representatives of committees in 17 countries that campaign for the marbles’ return, as well as the deputy chairman of the British Museum’s board of trustees.

Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, is as passionate about keeping the marbles in London as the Greeks are about getting them back and is adopting a firm, hard stance of ‘no surrender’.

MacGregor argues – via the Daily Telegraph – that it legally owns the collection in a museum that attracts more visitors than any other in the world – rather than just to one nation’s history – and that they are displayed in an international cultural context, free of charge.

On Thursday, June 11, the British Museum offered to loan the Elgin Marbles to Greece for three months in what it no doubt perceived to be the peak of generosity.

The Greek government rightly declined because, as a condition of the loan, the British Museum required recognition of its ownership rights, which would pretty much eliminate the prospect of Greece ever getting them back for good, fundamentally condoning the snatching of the marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.

The Greek demand for ownership has already aroused widespread sympathy from those who believe that, regardless of historical justifications for what effectively amounts to vandalism and outright theft, the sculptures from the Parthenon now have good cause to be brought home, if only for artistic reasons alone.

But the British Museum won’t give them back, not only because they quite like having the breathtaking sculptures in their own backyard, but because it raises serious questions about the dubious provenance of other collections, including the Benin bronzes, seized in a punitive raid in Nigeria which are also their property, if you define ownership by the rule of theft.

This selfish, immature brutality only serves to suggest that Britain prefers to wallow in delusional, imperial ignorance, reflecting the most grotesque form of vanity and complexes associated with an empire long gone.

A simple goodwill gesture such as offering just one of the friezes should be the minimum offer currently on the table in an attempt to improve Greco-Anglo relations and improve an international reputation which is far more known for its lowlife behaving appallingly abroad than for it’s rich cultural heritage. Just think ‘Ibiza Uncovered’ and no further ‘Brits Abroad’ references are required.

In the meantime, Athenians and Greeks all over the world can be proud of their stunning new piece of architecture, filled with indisputably great art, a dazzling reflection of Classical values, radiating light, harmony, beauty, Eros, ethos and pathos from a global platform they rightly deserve. And where the marbles rightly belong.