July 28, 2008

New Acropolis Museum awaits return of the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 12:56 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

The British Museum is running out of time in which to return the Elgin Marbles before the New Acropolis Museum highlights the missing pieces for the whole world to see.

Bloomberg News

Acropolis Museum Awaits Missing Body Parts, Held in London
By A. Craig Copetas
July 28 (Bloomberg)

At Athens’s New Acropolis Museum, the most popular exhibit is in London.

That absent art would be what the Greeks label the Parthenon Marbles, the British brand the Elgin Marbles and what the sculptor Greg Wyatt reckons are history’s most important and fought-over examples of priceless classical sculpture.

“Those marbles are ultimate masterpieces,” says Wyatt, artist-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. “They tell a consequential story.”

And it’s a long story.

Greece considers the marbles, chiseled around 434 B.C. by Phidias, Alcamenes and Agoracritus, to be a national metaphor pilfered by a 19th-century Scottish earl out to impress a rich woman named Constance Dundas by garnishing his manor house back in Fife with relics lifted from the Acropolis when the country was occupied by Ottoman Turks.

The British nobleman was Thomas Bruce, the 7th earl of Elgin, a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce and Britain’s Ottoman ambassador when the Acropolis doubled as the sultan’s military bunker. The ruins were up for grabs, so Bruce in 1801 bribed the Turks and set about harvesting the Treasury of Atreus, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheum.

Fun With Centaurs

Bruce spent 75,000 pounds to hack, hammer and ship off some 35 panels, dozens of statue chunks and a 247-foot swath of the frieze above Athena’s temple that depicted a religious festival known as the Pantheonic Procession, a parade of scenes that depict naked folks cavorting with centaurs.

Back in Scotland, dumped by Dundas and broke, Bruce sold his 61 cases of Acropolis loot to the British Museum in 1816 for 35,000 pounds. It was the sale of the century and it triggered a dilemma of epic proportions.

As the British Museum’s current board of trustees tells it, the Elgins aren’t leaving the building and souvenir friezes and postcards are available in the gift shop. “The trustees’ position is as it always was,” British Museum Director Neil MacGregor said at a July 1 press breakfast. “The Parthenon sculptures are an integral part of the museum.”

For former Greek Culture Minister Elissavet Papazoi, MacGregor’s intransigence is a recurring episode in a 201-year- old crisis loaded with charges and counter-charges of everything from asset stripping to psychological distress. Decades of lawsuits, grievances, diplomatic schadenfreude and historical studies have done nothing to cool passions.

`Sacred Place’

“Getting the British to return the marbles has always been a major part of daily government life,” Papazoi says. “We have no positive indication that the British will ever give them back. The British Museum has continually failed to realize that the Acropolis is our sacred place and how special the Parthenon Marbles are for us.”

The British Museum, of course, isn’t the only culture center built on plunder. When Napoleon pillaged Parma in 1807, he paid no attention to the duchy’s fashionable cheese and without complaint hauled the Correggios to the Louvre.

The Greeks haven’t been so quiet about the Acropolis heist.

“The marbles must be returned in the name of all stolen artifacts,” says former Greek President Kostis Stephanopoulos, 80, who has spent much of his adult life trying to coax the British into sending back the treasure. “The battle is difficult and I fear the English will not return them to our wonderful new museum.”

Government planners after much wrangling decided to put the $178 million museum, designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi and Greece’s Michalis Photiadis, on a congested residential area some 300 feet below the Acropolis’s southern cliff.

Although the museum sits atop the preserved and accessible ruins of a 6th century B.C. neighborhood with a spectacular view of the Parthenon, the building bursts on the scene like a cloud of concrete against a horizon of neo-classical homes, honking horns and apartment-block terraces strung with drying laundry.

Transparent Playground

Inside the 14,000-square-meter building, colossal panes of smoked glass filter out harmful light that could damage any of the 4,000 Acropolis artifacts Elgin left behind. Many of the passageways, ramps and observation balconies also are constructed from transparent material, allowing visitors to peer down into the archaeological excavation and the children who explore the ancient shops and homes during the museum’s 10 a.m.-to-noon soft opening between now and the official opening in December.

“A big playground,” says 12-year-old Karolos Demas, sitting on what looks like a stone kitchen shelf.

Greek Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos says the New Acropolis Museum, which has been in the making since 1976, was raised to transmit another message: Beware of Greeks building museums.

“The marbles will return,” Pavlopoulos says with the assurance of a local who knows that Greeks don’t make threats, they deliver prophecy.

Humiliation Strategy

The task of fulfilling Pavlopoulos’s prediction is now in the hands of New Acropolis Museum Director Dimitris Pandermalis, a 68-year-old field archaeologist with the energy of Indiana Jones and a plan to humiliate the British Museum into returning the sculptures.

Indeed, Pandermalis refrains from describing the four-story building as a museum. He prefers to call the place a “shelter” as his electronic key unlocks the door to the top floor. “Now your eyes can touch what Elgin actually did,” Pandermalis says.

The spectacle is intended to shock. Restored slabs of the sun-roasted Pantheonic Procession Elgin left behind with assorted weather-worn marble maidens, metopes and pediments are arranged to fill the 3,200-square-meter gallery in the same position as the ancient Greeks would have viewed them in the sanctuaries. Replicas of the many pieces Elgin brought back to London are part of the display, too, cast in bleach-white plaster and fixed to the originals.

Pandermalis says the cosmetic surgery is designed to taunt – – agitprop that reveals the full extent of Elgin’s butchery, what no less a critic than Byron likened to a “hapless bosom gored” in the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”

`Leg in London’

Zigzagging through the statues, Pandermalis continues his anatomy lesson. “Breast in London, head in Athens,” he says, reeling off a list of missing body parts. “Leg in London, hand in Athens. This is the best way to get the cultural point across.”

Pandermalis says about 50 percent of his Parthenon Marble exhibition is in London. “The British Museum has thousands of pieces of Greek treasure on display,” Pandermalis says. “We only want back the Parthenon Marbles.”

MacGregor refuses to budge and points out that millions of people annually visit the British Museum free of charge. Pandermalis pays no attention to the woman behind his shiny new ticket booth.

“We haven’t yet decided on the price of admission,” Pandermalis says.

For more information on the museum, go to http://newacropolismuseum.gr/eng/.

To contact the reporter on this story: A. Craig Copetas in Paris.
Last Updated: July 27, 2008 20:14 EDT

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