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The New Acropolis Museum as a tribute to the Parthenon

News stories on Athens’s New Acropolis Museum continue. Now that the opening event has passed though, more thought is given to the actual purpose of this building & how well suited it is to this task.

Most journalists who have seen the building are in favour of return – even many of those who previously regarded it as a bad idea.

Evening Standard (London) [1]

Life & Style
Now let’s return the Elgin Marbles
Rowan Moore

After 33 years the Acropolis Museum in Athens is finally open — and it’s enough to make a London patriot reconsider the case for giving the Greeks back their history…

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, may have been a chancer and cheat but by ripping sculptures from the Parthenon he helped save one of the world’s great art treasures for posterity. By bringing them to Britain he also helped put Greek art at the centre of world attention, at a time when Athens was a little-visited backwater.

In the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles stand in pride of place among the artefacts of the greatest ancient civilisations and beat them hands down for grace and brilliance. If the great museums of former robber Empires were to return all their dubiously acquired loot to their places of origin, where would we be?

The Louvre, the great museums of Berlin, the Pushkin in Moscow, as well as the British Museum, would all be stripped half bare. We would lose the chance to see the works of different cultures side by side, and the many millions who find it easier to travel to New York or London than Nineveh would no longer see them. Would it, for example, have been clever to return the British Museum’s Mesopotamian treasures to Iraq, given the recent damage to antiquities there?

Such are the well-known arguments for resisting Greek demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens.

I have them used myself, with conviction, when others have taken the Greek side. Oh, really? I say, if these others happen to be North or South American. And have you considered giving Manhattan, or the Pampas, back to the Indians?

These arguments came in my luggage last weekend, when I went to see the new Acropolis Museum, the 130 million project, 33 years in the making, whose main purpose is to refute at least one of the British Museum’s points. Athens has nowhere worthy of the marbles, the BM used to say, and as the old Acropolis Museum was a squat drab bunker, they were right.

The new Acropolis Museum, built to house both sculptures from the Parthenon and other treasures from the Acropolis, sets out to show that Athens can make a place more fitting than is possible in the grey light of Bloomsbury. Rarely has so much architectural effort gone into proving a point — but the project almost proved the opposite. It nearly showed that Athens couldn’t actually make such a place. The new building has only arrived after decades of abortive effort, four different architectural competitions, protracted wrangling about its location and, according to the museum’s architect, “about 100 lawsuits”.

The site is at the foot of the Acropolis, close to the Theatre of Dionysos where the great tragedies were first performed, and in view of the Parthenon. It is archaeologically rich, with the intricate remnants of houses and streets from early Christian times. This is why some argued, vehemently, that the museum should be in a less sensitive location. Others argued with equal force that such a charged place is exactly where it should be.

The architect is Bernard Tschumi, Swiss-born, and now based in New York and Paris. He was a surprising choice. Tschumi is best known as a star of deconstructivism, the once avant-garde architectural movement that made a virtue out of clashing shapes, disorientation and flying shards of metal. There was little in his CV to suggest he could make the delicate judgments needed to create settings for precious antiquities.

Yet the finished building is surprisingly normal. It is sober and rectangular, in grey concrete, something like the 1950s civic museums you find in Mediterranean countries. Some Greek critics have called it too big for its site, but it is not overbearing and seems reasonably scaled, given its significance.

You ascend the museum in a slow spiral, first up a shallow glass ramp and then via escalators to the top-floor gallery, which contains those sculptures from the Parthenon that Elgin did not remove, and plaster casts of those he did. The gallery is Parthenon-sized, with a glass-walled passage running around it, allowing the long friezes that once ringed the temple with vivid scenes of battles and processions to be seen in their entirety. This oblong box is at an angle skewed from the rest of the building, so as to align exactly with the Parthenon itself, visible high on its hill.

There are good moments on the journey from ground to sky. Those early Christian houses that excited the archaeologists are revealed through holes cut in the floor, and there is a high-ceilinged first-floor gallery, beautifully lit with natural light, in which a grove of standing figures stand on chaste marble plinths. Tschumi doesn’t like the usual clutter of museums, such as intrusive display panels and seating, and has kept it to a minimum, which creates an impressively calm atmosphere.

There are also some clunkingly awful moments. You enter, under a vast, clumsy portico, an elephantine proboscis propped on three thumping columns. Throughout the building, architecture gets in the way of the exhibits. There are too many fat columns, and thick joints between panels, and holes cut in walls and ceiling for purposes of acoustics or lighting. The serene sculptures are interrupted with too much visual noise.

Among the prime exhibits are the caryatids, the female statues which propped part of the Erectheum until replaced by replicas. They stand in an ugly pool of yellowish artificial light, in an airport-like zone, as if waiting their turn to be called for boarding by easyJet. Many of the details — botched-up joins between wall and floor, or lines of metal that are supposed to be straight but actually wobble — show that craftsmanship has declined since the age of Pericles.

BUT the greatest crime has yet to happen. Two apartment blocks, from the first half of the 20th century, stand in front of the museum, rich in fine art deco and neo-classical decoration, and with riotous greenery on their roofs. The plan is to demolish them, to create a pompous void between the museum and the Acropolis. Yet the beauty of the site is in its multiple levels of history and human life, from the ancient Greeks to the early Christians, to the new building. To cut out these blocks, which are evidence that Athenians could create beauty in modern as well as ancient times, would be pointless vandalism.
So the museum, opened last Saturday with pomp and ministers, and motorcades and circling helicopters, is flawed. However, it does its job of storing and displaying the treasures of the Parthenon. One of the British Museum’s objections to transferring the marbles has been crossed off the list. But does this mean they should, finally, go?

Standing there on Sunday, as the first members of the public flooded in, and armed with all the arguments of a London patriot, I felt my objections melting away. It is partly that the Parthenon sculptures form a single work of art, which has been arbitrarily dismembered. This work can never be completely restored but there is still much to be gained from having as much as possible in one place. Like a shattered figure, it is good to reconnect the head to the neck to the torso, even if the feet and hands are permanently lost.

To be more mundane, keeping the marbles will now be terrible PR for Britain. Each person who visits the new museum will see the same story: here is a great family of sculptures kept apart by the grouchy Brits, still exercising their imperial rights of loot and pillage. Most of all, the Greeks have shown, by building the museum, how much the marbles mean to them.

There is nothing, in short, quite like the Parthenon’s sculptures, and returning them would not mean that the Louvre must return the paintings that Napoleon tore from the walls of Italian monasteries, or that Venice should hand back the art that the Crusaders stole from 13th-century Constantinople.

The British Museum should, with generosity and grace, hand back the marbles. They should do so without conditions, except one. They should demand that the Greeks show that they care for their own heritage, by saving those 20th-century apartment blocks.

Associated Press [2]

A new paean to the past
Acropolis Museum boosts case for return of artifacts
June 24, 2009 2:32 a.m.

Greece opened its long-anticipated new Acropolis Museum this past week­end, boosting its decades-old campaign for the return of 2,500-year-old sculptures removed from the ancient citadel by a 19th-century British diplomat.

After years of delays and legal wrangling, the museum opened its doors to the public on Sunday at a nominal charge of about $1.60 — the price of a public bus ticket.

Saturday night’s lavish opening ceremony, which had a nearly $4.7-million price tag, was attended by foreign heads of state and government, whose presence was seen as a tacit approval of the marbles’ return.

But the party was tinged with a sense of loss. “We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts,” said Culture Minister Antonis Samaras. “We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in 5th-century (BC) Athens, because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometres away.”

The museum is the centrepiece of Greece’s efforts to regain the Parthenon Marbles — sculptures that were part of a stunning 160-metre marble frieze of a religious procession that adorned the top of the ancient citadel’s grandest structure, the Parthenon.

The temple was built at the height of Athens’ glory between 447 and 432 BC in honour of the city’s patron goddess, Athena.

Britain’s envoy, Lord Elgin, pried them off the building in the early 1800s while Greece was still an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire. Facing bankruptcy, he eventually sold the artworks to the British Museum, where they have been displayed ever since.

“This was an act of barbarism that can be corrected,” museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said. “It’s not an issue of pointing a finger at the British Museum, but of building bridges … that can correct the unfortunate historic event of 1800.”

The return of the Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles is an issue of national pride in Greece. Successive governments have waged a high-profile but so far fruitless campaign for their repatriation, saying the sculptures were looted from a work of art so important that its surviving pieces should all be exhibited together.

“The abduction of these sculptures is not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world,” Samaras said. “They were made to be seen in sequence and in total, something that cannot happen as long as half of them are held hostage in the British Museum.”

The British Museum has rejected repeated requests to send the marbles home.

It counters that it legally owns the collection and that it is displayed free of charge in an international cultural context.

“I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days,” said British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton.

“The Acropolis Museum is obviously going to be a fantastic new museum. … It’s obviously going to be wonderful to finally be able to see all the sculptures that remain in Athens on public display,” Boulton said.

“But … here in the British Museum, they can tell this equally important, although different story about ancient Athens’ place, in world cultures.”

The British Museum says it only considers loan requests that recognize its ownership of artifacts, and that a loan would not be permanent nor include the whole collection.

Samaras has already rejected such a suggestion, saying instead he would be prepared to discuss lending Greek antiquities to the London museum “to fill the gap left when the Marbles finally return to the place where they belong.”

One of the main arguments against returning the sculptures had been a lack of an appropriate place to house them. Many maintained that by removing the marbles, Elgin had ultimately protected them from damage by acid rain and pollution.

But the new $205-million glass and concrete museum at the foot of the ancient citadel is Greece’s reply.

Holding more than 4,000 ancient works in 14,000 square metres of display space, the museum’s highlight is its top story. The glass hall displays the section of the Parthenon frieze that Elgin left behind, next to plaster casts of the works in London — which Greece hopes one day to replace with the originals from the British Museum.

“In essence it will be a constant, silent denunciation” of the Parthenon Marbles’ continued absence, Samaras said. The new museum, the minister said, “is a catalyst for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.”

WCW Insight [3]

June 24th, 2009
News/Culture: Athens Opens a Spectacular Tribute to the Legacy of the Parthenon

The new Acropolis Museum opens in Athens with international dignitaries present; only the conspicuous absence of Britain and the famous ‘Elgin’ Marbles marred the occasion

Viewpoint by Andrew Scharf, Head of the WCW Group

With the lights lit at night, the Acropolis stands out as one of mankind’s greatest architectural legacies. The Parthenon in the midnight blue sky is majestic lit with golden spots on marble as smooth as flesh. The site viewed in countless books and postcards seems so cliched, except in person where it is overwhelming and in fact, dazzles the human imagination.

The new museum which opened this past weekend is a loving tribute to not just to Greek culture and architecture but to the world’s artistic and cultural heritage. The evening projection of the caryatids from the Erechtheion is something to behold.

Despite the beauty of the new installation, half the frieze of the Parthenon still sits in the grey washed out light of the British Museum. The old argument that Greece did not have a proper place to keep the famous Elgin Marbles, and that they would have deteriorated if they had been left is no longer valid. This sensitive issue about ownership should no longer be a political issue. Britain had made the claim, and perhaps rightly so, that they had safeguarded this fabulous treasure for all people to enjoy in the British Museum in London, truly a great institution with a noble heritage for preserving ancient civilisations and art for everyone to enjoy. The problem now is that the past justification is groundless, concerning the Parthenon frieze.

The British Museum holds a world-class collection in their vaults that would make people gasp. One of the treasures buried in the vaults are the unbelievable Buddhist scrolls “saved”, some would claim stolen, from China. Knowing Chinese history, it is certain that these scrolls would have probably been destroyed. Aurel Stein, the Hungarian explorer and archeologist almost seems as a persona non grata today. In his time, his achievements won him many awards.

I mention Stein, because Lord Elgin thought similarly about preserving the past. As he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago, he made a deal with the Ottoman authorities so that the famous marbles would have a new “home” in London; they have been there since 1816. In 1874, the Greeks built a modest installation to house other ruins. Until recently the ruins were not as protected as they should have been. In the 1980s, this became a hot political issue.

Since most of the world’s museums hold art, sculpture and artifacts acquired by various methods to be polite, there is the fear that if one museum started to return pieces to their lands of origin, the museums would become denuded. This is clearly untrue, and pieces have been returned, and so precedent has already been set. For example, MoMa returned Picasso’s “Guernica” to Spain when the government became democratic as Picasso once stipulated in an agreement with the New York museum. The transfer was done by night and by stealth to avoid press and commotion. New Yorkers loved this painting but understood that they were just caretakers. It would be nice if the British Museum could see things in a similar light although no contract was made as in the case of Picasso.

The new museum designed by the Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi is a $200m state-of-the-art facility. Floor space is 2.5 hectares. The style of the building has admirers and detractors as is the case for most high profile museum projects today. Despite the design, inside it is light and airy, you could almost say ethereal. Here is the miracle of the weathered Parthenon originals. Combined with plaster casts for the ones still in London, the sun-drenched room shows the marbles in the light for which they were originally conceived.

What is striking is the originals against the plaster. The viewer’s heart calls out instinctively to see the originals restored to their proper place of glory.

The President of Greece, Karolos Papoulias stated, “It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument”. The plea carries the drama of pathos and poetry.

Visitors will delight in seeing the the archaic statues on the second floor in addition to the new and most recent archeological finds. When leaving the museum, you can almost here Melina Mecouri’s voice or the crowing of Katsambalis, the famous colossus of Marousi. Perhaps, the British Museum will also see things in a new light.