August 15, 2007

Are tourists the pilgrims of our age?

Posted at 1:59 pm in Acropolis, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

An interesting article reflects on the mindset of modern tourism, as well as the effect of the progress of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens on the debate over the Elgin Marbles.

The Independent

14 August 2007 13:13
Philip Hensher
Tourists are the pilgrims of our age
Published: 14 August 2007

Some people find the spectacle of mass tourism offensive and alarming, and in many places it certainly is that. On occasion, however, you have to reflect that the scale of tourism – the sheer numbers flocking round some important treasure – is some kind of homage to the power of the imagination, and of the history of culture. It’s sometimes hard to remember this, but in the middle of August, we should probably make the effort.

In Athens this week, I made the effort in the broiling heat to climb the Acropolis hill, to see what progress has been made in its restoration and rebuilding. The heat was a serious disincentive, it must be said. But there was something extraordinarily moving about the numbers of people making the same journey, from all parts of the world: Japanese women very sensibly using parasols, Americans fanning themselves with their baseball caps, the unmistakably sticky-out legs of the English and elegant Spanish, South Americans and Indians, coping very well indeed with the heat.

It was like the whole of Christendom, and well beyond that. The parallel wasn’t so inapt, since, really, in this secular age, the nearest thing to a holy pilgrimage for much of the developed world is a trip to see the Parthenon, the Louvre, the Duomo in Florence and the rest of it. A devout Muslim may make the haj; a Hindu will journey thousands of miles to see an ice lingam in a cave. We get on a plane to look at a broken-down temple brinking a city- centre mountain.

Artistic pilgrimages have been a part of Western culture for a good long time now, but what is quite recent is the idea of their universal availability. In the 18th century, English noblemen travelled abroad primarily to bring back treasures. In the 19th, many of those acquired treasures were made available in an enlightened, philanthropic spirit to the great mass of people who could never have dreamed of seeing Greece or Italy, and the general reputation of those places as the highpoints of civilisation grew to be accepted by everyone.

That, I think, has now changed, and changed permanently. Looking at the nearly complete new Acropolis Museum – a magnificent-looking piece of supercilious glass-and-steel modernism – it is perfectly clear that it is waiting for something, and that something is what used to be called the Elgin Marbles.

The argument for returning the Parthenon marbles has become quite overwhelming. Leaving aside the question of the British Museum’s physical care of them over the past 200 years (and it’s hard not to think that there’s something opportunistic about the Greek emphasis on their destructive overcleaning in the past), the museum has done a magnificent job in placing the great sculptures of the ancient Greeks at the centre of Western civilisation, just as the Victorians placed the values of Greece in the centre of their ideals.

People, paradoxically, now go to Greece precisely because the marbles are in a London museum. But, increasingly, if people want to pay homage to that civilisation, they go to Greece and not to London. Our habits of pilgrimage have changed. Let us concede that the great job has now been done on behalf of Greece, as it is still being done by the Museum in magnificent terms for a hundred other civilisations, showing us the triumphs of places we could never plausibly go to. The Greeks ought to have the centrepiece to their beautiful new museum.

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