May 14, 2007

A preview of the New Acropolis Museum

Posted at 12:52 pm in New Acropolis Museum

Peter Stothard, Editor of the TLS & former editor of The Times, talks poetically in his blog about his experience of visiting the construction site of the New Acropolis Museum.

Times Blogs

May 11, 2007
Maidens of the air

Some time this Autumn there will be a sight in the sky of Athens to shock even the most unshockable Greeks.

Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, professionally calm archaeologist and construction supervisor, has just told me about it, with sudden beads of sweat falling down from his white builder’s hard-hat to his slate suit and violet tie.

Flying Caryatids?

The professor and I have been looking out towards the place they are going to fly from.

And I had better believe it.

For, while it’s true that in most of the 3000-year history of the Acropolis a report of marble statues about to sail through the air would hardly raise a shrug. .

. . in these days the idea seems a little different – dangerous even.

Once upon a time a tale of airborne statuary could have been just another Roman general rearranging the ornaments to suit the whims of some imperial master.

Or a Byzantine bishop hammering pagan images from the Parthenon panels – or smashing the frieze to build windows.

Or Turkish soldiers taking pot-shots – or ducking when the ammunition dump exploded.

Or French and British antiquarians filling their roped crates and freight-ships with stuff that seemed surplus to interest or requirement where it stood.

But now we are talking, the Professor and I, about the preservation of objects that have achieved a sacrality in a secular age greater than any significance they have had before in times that were more religious.

The Professor is President of the project to build a new steel-and-glass museum at the bottom of the Acropolis hill – a 21st century glory finally fitting for the ancient statues that are housed now in dark 1860s bungalow rooms at the top.

The new building – designed also to show that the carvings removed by the 19th century British and French can be now safely returned to Greece – is not yet complete. Our tour is an extarordinary trip through girders and wiring, newly discovered Roman baths and newly abandoned British newsprint.

But some of the museum’s first occupants, the famed Caryatid maidens of the temple of Erechtheus, are soon to fly across the southern slopes in the care of three separate cranes, each crane carrying its treasure for 100 metres of the 300 metre journey.


Professor Pandermalis does not seem like a man easily scared. He has conquered every financial, academic and political critic who has crossed his path so far. He has survived missing his 2004 Olympic deadline – and more budget limits than anyone can now recall. He has called for the British Museum to return its ‘Elgin Marbles’ with a quiet reasoning tone which previous Greek claimants have never found.

But the flight of those first Caryatids, an aerial pass-the-parcel above the battered birth-place of tragic theatre and some still-standing memorials to early sports heroes, will still be a big sweat-around-the-hard-hat event.

Will the flights be secret, nocturnal, unseen?

We don’t think so.

The cranes can practise, of course. Their first cargo need not be one of the original marble guardians of the hero born from one god’s premature ejaculation on the leg of another.

Nor even the copies that are now on the temple itself.

The priceless 5th century Caryatids – whose ancient Acropolis home was to serve Athena’s and Hephaestus’s son Erechthonios and who later hosted whorehouses and harems too – can wait till the crane-drivers have found their best line and length.

But what if any practice run is a failure, if any cheap plaster Caryatid (and there are millions of those) were to tumble down between the stalls of Dionysus and a Choregic monument, would they ever dare try to fly the real ones?

Doubtless Professor Pandermalis would find a way. But I wouldn’t want to be the band around his hard-hat.

There is a spectacular site for the Caryatids above the entrance hall to the new museum – and an empty space ready for the one which Lord Elgin brought to London and which the Greeks would very much like back.

On the top floor, in a flat black-glass box set to match the orientation of the Parthenon itself, there is to be an even bigger sign saying ‘Give Us Back Our Marbles’.

Behind bright metal pillars, one for each of the columns, will sit the Greek parts of the frieze which have successfully survived the passage of time and the varying interest of visitors.

And alongside them, much more dramatically, ghost-replicas, shrouded in grey muslin, of the parts that have gone elsewhere.

Professor Pandermalis hopes that this will persuade British visitors that their British Museum is wrong to hold pieces of ancient man and god which – whatever the rights and wrongs of past actions – would now be better housed with the rest of their family and nearer to where they were born.

It may, indeed, have that effect.

Or it may just suggest that to make the main room in a magnificent multi-million-euro museum a place of ghosts shows an unhealthy obsession with what you do not possess over what you do.

We will have to wait and see.

The issue is a complex aesthetic and archaeological conundrum, never more fairly and simply explained than in the 2002 book, The Parthenon, by my TLS colleague, Mary Beard.

She explains, amongst much else, that that even our most complete version of the frieze is not complete – that its unfathomable theme might have been fully understood only if its final panels above the eastern door, destroyed by a fire in 3rd century AD, had been recorded before that time.

The judgement on the Elgin Marbles must finally be made on what is most genuinely important about these beautiful works of art.

If the Acropolis had remained somehow intact through the centuries, its temples only slightly worn by wind and time since the days of their makers, the place would still be a wonderful object of study.

But it is doubtful if it would be attracting a fraction of the attention that it has today.

The frieze itself – originally almost invisible up high in the inner colonnade – would have had none of its impact on man’s image of himself if it had not been seen and studied, its art admired and copied, in 19th Century London.

And then yearned for in modern Greece.

Screamed and shouted for.

Desired, missed, somehow made whole in its very incompleteness.

The Parthenon, like many powerful stories, is a powerful story of loss and transformation.

A very Greek story.

One which could be ended by the return of the Elgin Marbles.

And maybe, by Professor Pandermalis’s efforts, will be.

But where will the story be then?

Meanwhile may all the Caryatids be safe – everywhere.

Posted by Peter Stothard on May 11, 2007 at 11:07

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