The Onassis Cultural Center in Manhattan is displaying an exhibition about the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.
Greece makes its case for Elgin Marbles at New York exhibit
By DAVID MINTHORN
Associated Press Writer
April 6, 2003, 10:20 AM EDT
NEW YORK — The halves of a carving depicting an ancient Greek chariot race interlock on the gallery wall like parts of a jigsaw puzzle.
“Both pieces, currently divided between Athens and London, should be rejoined at the New Acropolis Museum,” says the caption.
Greece is presenting its case for the return of the Elgin Marbles in an exhibit at the Alexander S. Onassis Cultural Center in Manhattan, using nationalism, finger-pointing and appeals to fair play to gain support.
The spectacular setting awaiting the treasured sculptures _ if they’re ever returned from exile _ is laid out in “The New Acropolis Museum.” But like mythical playthings of the gods, these fifth century B.C. carvings may be fated to remain in Britain, their destiny ordained by museum politics.
Greece is rushing to build the $100 million New Acropolis Museum to house the Marbles for the 2004 Summer Olympics, locating it next to the rocky citadel in the heart of ancient Athens. The three-level museum will be topped with a glass-walled Parthenon Gallery to display the carvings in brilliant sunlight, just 800 feet from, and slightly below, the temple they once adorned.
Innovative and earthquake-proof, the museum aims to rebut longtime British objections to the Elgin Marbles’ return _ that Greece lacked first-rate display space to assure the safety of the 480-foot-long section of the Parthenon frieze.
British officials are also worried that a repatriation of the Marbles, even on loan, could set a precedent for other claims on antiquities removed from original sites.
The Greeks counter that the Marbles belong in their homeland, and they’ve proposed opening an Athens’ branch of the British Museum so the sculptures would be maintained under British ownership.
Contacts “are being held at multiple levels _ political, public opinion, between experts … we do not think the British side has ‘shut the door’ to communication with the Greek side,” said Dimitris Pandermalis, president of the museum construction organization.
The tale of the 2,500-year-old Marbles _ 17 figures depicting an Athenian procession _ is almost Homeric. The carvings were purchased in 1803 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Athens at the time. The sculptures were dismantled from the Parthenon, shipped to London and sold to the British Museum, quickly becoming the most celebrated pieces in the collection.
The new museum “offers the opportunity for Britain … to reunify the sculptures of the Parthenon for this and subsequent generations,” Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos writes in the exhibit catalog.
Until the sculptures are returned, Venizelos adds, “the spaces for the metopes, frieze, and figures of the pediment will remain void _ as a constant reminder of this unfilled debt to world heritage.”
The frieze formed an ornamental band of marble carvings around the top of the Parthenon. Additional sculptures decorated the metopes _ openings for structural beams _ and the pediment, or portico, on the roof line.
Greece will show the remnants of the Parthenon frieze that it managed to keep, along with other Athenian treasures, at the New Acropolis Museum opening for the Summer Games. Other stages of the museum will follow.
The New York exhibit, open through April 9 with no entry fee, features elaborate scale models of the new museum, including a detailed layout of the entire Acropolis site, architectural drawings and topography maps.
Four priceless relief sculptures in marble dating from the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries B.C. are also shown.
The architectural elements will be displayed April 22-May 24 at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London as a part of an exhibit on the 2004 Summer Games and its impact on Athens. However, the marble reliefs won’t be sent to London, said Amalia Cosmetatou, director of cultural events for the Onassis foundation.
The 250,000-square-foot museum is going up at the southern base of the Acropolis, at the ancient road that led up to the “sacred rock” in classical times under the great leader, Pericles. A 1.5-mile walkway links the archaeological sites in this font of Western civilization.
Visitors will ascend through the galleries to the top level, where the crowning gallery is being laid out on the same plane and with the precise geometry and harmonious dimensions of the columned Parthenon.
Architect Bernard Tschumi of New York, who won the competition to design the New Acropolis Museum, is using glass walls, skylights and an atrium to bring Athens’ brilliant sunlight into the museum to illuminate the sculptures.
The principle is demonstrated in the exhibit with a spotlight-with-dimmer directed at the relief sculptures to show how the carved figures become highly visible and then obscure in the changing light.