August 16, 2004

Greece’s request for the return of the Marbles

Posted at 11:16 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Another article prompted by the Olympics, this also covers the construction of the New Acropolis Museum.

Toronto Star

Aug. 15, 2004. 09:08 AM
Going for all the Marbles
While Greece heralds the return of the Olympics, there is one more homecoming it would like to see


ATHENS—It was synchronicity of the highest order: an ancestral homecoming for the Olympics, coinciding with the repatriation of the famously controversial Parthenon Marbles, the most precious missing pieces of Greek antiquity.

Such was the scale of cultural ambitions as Greece mused through the various ways it might elevate art to stand alongside sport in its planning for Athens 2004.

A New Acropolis Museum would be built, it was decided, replete with a panoramic upper gallery so perfect it would inevitably bring an end to the art world’s most enduring controversy by impelling Britain once and for all to give back the marble sculptures that were tragically sawn and chiselled two centuries ago from the upper section of the Parthenon.

Modern Greece may indeed be a last-minute culture, as so many Athenians have claimed in the rocky run-up to the Games. But in the case of the New Acropolis Museum, unlike the rest of the Athens 2004 construction projects, no amount of accelerated effort could get the job done.

Delay begat further delay, and when ground was finally broken on a 1.8-hectare site at the southern base of the Acropolis, digging was halted by the discovery of Byzantine ruins, and beneath these, further signs of prehistoric settlement. The courts got involved, and when the size, scope and location of the foundations were finally settled, any hope that Greece might see its marbles under the glow of the Olympic flame were gone.

Today, the New Acropolis Museum remains little more than a series of foundation pilings. And the majority of the contentious sculptures they were to hold, a series of exquisitely sculpted marble friezes that once adorned the Parthenon, remain in the British Museum.

“A grand museum such as this is so difficult. Things need their time,” Elena Korka of the Greek Directorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities told the Star.

“We anticipated having the marbles here. It would have been a turning point of incredible importance, because of their symbolism.

“The Olympics are something that rises above the interests of the nation. Each country exposes its culture and the effect is something broader than sport.”

Korka, an archaeologist, has dedicated much of her effort over the past 18 years to the issue of the Parthenon Marbles. She knows their history, ancient and modern, by rote.

The sculpted slabs of white Pentelic marble in question were chiselled in situ almost 2,500 years ago, when the Parthenon was first created as a tribute to the goddess Athena.

Arguably the foremost monument of Western civilization, the Parthenon’s symmetry and harmony was made complete by these adornments, which comprised a triad of painstakingly carved metopes, pediments and a 160-metre frieze that wrapped around the building in a continuous depiction of the Panathenaic procession.

The structure lasted an astonishing 20 centuries more or less intact before suffering its first substantial blow when a Venetian raiding party triggered an explosion of Ottoman munitions stored on the summit within the columns of the Parthenon.

But the darkest chapter in the Parthenon’s history belongs to one Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, who used his position as Britain’s ambassador to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in a determined effort to strip the Parthenon of its sculpted treasures.

Elgin assembled a team of European draftsmen, ostensibly to create drawings and plaster cast replicas of the Parthenon marbles. But his three-year project (1801-1804) eventually devolved into a campaign of ham-fisted pillaging. Under the authority of a dubious letter Elgin claimed as permission from the ruling Ottomans, hundreds of crates of marble were shipped to England, including nearly 90 metres of the continuous band of sculpted frieze around the Parthenon.

Almost immediately upon seizing possession, Elgin’s luck turned foul in a fashion later described by poet Lord Byron as “the curse of Athena.” His marriage dissolved upon his return to Britain, and with it, access to his wife’s fortune. Elgin eventually fled to Paris in failing heath, heavy debt and widely despised for the manner in which the Greek treasures came into his hands.

Yet the British government agreed, after an investigation into the issue, to purchase the marbles from Elgin for the agreed upon sum of £35,000 and a commitment to present them in perpetuity as the Elgin Marbles. That remains their name today at the British Museum, where they remain the highlight for many of the six million people who visit the museum each year.

The British Museum’s collection, approximately 60 per cent of the surviving Parthenon sculptures, stands as the single most disputed instance of imperial-era plunder in museological circles. For decades, the Greek government has tried every imaginable tool of diplomatic suasion in a continuing effort to win back the sculptures for Athens, where they would be reunited with the Greek collection.

In recent years, the tone of debate between British and Greek officialdom has been decidedly undiplomatic, with the principals speaking more to the media than to each other. At one point, British Museum director Neil MacGregor was quoted as saying: “To rip the Elgin Marbles from the walls of the British Museum is worse than to consider blowing up the Parthenon itself.”

But beneath the public squabbling, according to Korka, the issue is moving toward resolution.

“It is definitely progressing, after all these years. We understand their preoccupations. The biggest concern for the British is the floodgates issue — once you return the Marbles, what else do you have to give back to other countries?” she said.

“We contend the floodgates argument doesn’t really exist. The Parthenon is the logo of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) … It is unique. No other monument in the world carries such huge symbolism, therefore nothing else compares.”

And from the viewpoint of archaeological scholarship, Korka argues reunification will enable the discovery of additional fragments. “You can’t have the legs here, the head there, a knee and a toe vast distances apart. You must have the whole in front of you in order to fit in the pieces that continue to be discovered,” she said.

Korka said Greek authorities have come to terms with the fact that Britain will not be pressured into releasing the treasures. Whatever solution is found must be based on the notion of both sides winning. One possibility both sides are exploring is the notion of bringing not only the treasures to Athens, but the British Museum itself.

If the British Museum is able to attach its name in some fashion to the New Acropolis Museum now under construction beneath the Parthenon, a gesture of loss could in fact become an act of corporate cultural branding. Both sides appear to be converging on this option to put the whole mess behind them.

On the other side of central Athens, opposite Korka’s culture ministry office, New Acropolis Museum president Dimitrios Pandermalis waits patiently for these issues to be solved.

Unfazed by the delays in construction of the new building, Pandermalis is in fact brimming with enthusiasm for the $220 million project, which he says is now unstoppable. He promises a post-modern museum in form and function, one that will hover on pilings to expose for visitors the Byzantine ruins below.

After an international architectural competition, the winning design of Bernard Tschumi Architects and Athens-based Michael Photiadis calls for a three-storey structure of glass and steel through which natural light will cascade from top to bottom. The effect will be to show the surviving adornments of the Parthenon as they would have been seen when they stood upon the monument itself.

Most impressive, perhaps, are plans for the upper floor gallery, which exactly replicate in proportion and orientation the upper section of the Parthenon itself, which will be readily visible through the glass walls. It is here that these controversial Marbles are meant to be displayed.

“The Acropolis and Parthenon are such strong symbols — too strong — they force controversy upon us in the decisions of how the museum should be built,” said Pandermalis.

“We’ve been discussing this museum for the past 30 years. But now finally the most difficult work is done. We will build a modern work of glass architecture that will present classical treasures in a way that will give people a visual link to the original. And it will be done — in 2006.”

But the question remains: will Britain and Greece sort out their differences in time for the ribbon-cutting? Will Athens finally have all its marbles in one place, or will the New Acropolis Museum be unveiled as a testament to the piecemeal failure of the modern age?

Pandermalis smiles thoughtfully at the questions, pausing to find the right words: “These pieces of sculpture from the Parthenon have a message for us today. They illuminate the first democracy in the world. They teach us the creative way forward is to work together for their reunification.

“I think we are obliged to be creative in finding the answer. To do nothing is simply not interesting. We must find the answer. And we will.”

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