August 5, 2009

A one sided view of history – removing the iconoclasm from the video at the New Acropolis Museum

Posted at 12:59 pm in New Acropolis Museum

The decision to cut out depictions of the iconoclasm from a video at the New Acropolis Museum has angered many people for its promotion of a one sided view of history. This is a situation not dis-similar to the British Museum’s attempts to re-write the history of the Parthenon Sculptures as an integral part of their own collection.

The Faster Times

Rewriting History at the Acropolis Museum
July 31, 2009 Nicole Itano

ATHENS, Greece — The none-too-subtle subtext behind the recent opening of Greece’s new Acropolis Museum was that the time had come for Britain to return the famous Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles, which are still in display at the British Museum nearly 200 years after they were hacked from the famous building and hauled off to London by a British aristocrat.

But although the museum was designed to boost national pride, it recently found itself under attack from the country’s most powerful nationalist institution, the Greek Orthodox Church.

Earlier this week, the museum announced that it was removing a scene from an animated film — censoring it, according to its Greek-French creator — depicting Christian priests destroying part of the Parthenon, after complaints from the Church.

The offending scene, which was excerpted from a short made in 2004 by Academy Award-winning director Constantin Costa-Gavras, can be seen here in the director’s original film beginning at about 1:30:

So why all the fuss?

The Greek Orthodox Church and Athenian democracy — represented most fully in popular imagination by the Parthenon — are the two most powerful symbols of Greek nationhood. So the idea that Christians might once have been less than respectful to Greece’s ancient past strikes at the heart of the Greek national identity, and the Church’s role in it.

Of course, it is widely documented that early Christians tore down ancient monuments and that the Parthenon was once used as a church (and later, as a mosque). But, for many Greeks, those are inconvenient facts, best left unexplored. According to the Associated Press, “Greek officials contended the film misrepresented the attitude of the Greek Orthodox Church toward Greece’s ancient heritage.”

History in this part of the world is often as much a nation-building project as it is a process aimed at trying to understand, and learn from, the past. In Greece, nationalists, as well as the Greek Church, have often resisted versions of history that veer from the mainstream “good vs. evil,” “vs. them” narrative taught in schools.

In 2007, for example, the Church led a campaign against a new history textbook for 11 year-olds that it said minimized Greek suffering under the Ottomans. Greece’s center-right government eventually withdrew the books.

Other countries in the region have faced similar battles over history and how it should be interpreted. Last year, the Greek Cypriot government came under fire after it tried to revise the country’s elementary school history curriculum in a way that showed Turkish Cypriots in less negative light. Serbian and Albanian children in Kosovo still learn very different versions of the past and, of course, in Turkey, talking about whether there was a genocide against Armenians in the early years of the 20th century remains taboo.

Some historians in the region, like those involved in the Joint History Project, are trying to encourage a less one-sided approach to history.

But, as the recent decision by the Acropolis Museum illustrates, they are still in the minority.

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