August 28, 2009

The New Acropolis Museum raises the bar on cultural morality

Posted at 1:07 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Father Steven Scoutas from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia has written detailed & pragmatic account of his own visit to the New Acropolis Museum, partly as a response to the very negative article on the Elgin Marbles by Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph.

Greek Australian Vema

Greek Australian Vema, August, 2009
The New Acropolis Museum – Raising the bar on cultural morality

After reading Richard Dorment’s tirade on the new Acropolis Museum “The Elgin Marbles will never return to Athens – the British Museum is their rightful home” (Daily Telegraph, London, 30th June 2009), I thought to myself “Wow, I hope he hasn’t bet his house on this”.

I was neither surprised nor angered by his article. Just disappointed. Not by his regurgitation of the now desperately outmoded stance of the British Museum, but that this otherwise distinguished journalist and chief art-critic of the London Telegraph would turn clairvoyant to back up a story. Surely the future is a phase of time which remains unpredictable, even to contemporary ‘Delphian’ oracles.

For someone who belongs to a generation that never in its wildest dreams believed the Berlin Wall would collapse, uniting East and West Germany, or that Communist authoritarianism in Russia would be replaced by Democracy, during our life-time, his assertion about the future of the Parthenon Marbles is, in the least, ill-considered. Freedom of speech is one thing. Smugness towards painful chapters of a people’s history is another.

In any event, journalism at its most vigorous demands courage, even misadventure and risk of life. It is a sacred vocation when practiced conscientiously. How a journalist treads the fine line between morality and immorality in reporting, though, depends greatly on the height of ideals espoused and the depth of personal humility. Inescapably, both subjectivity and objectivity are usually deployed when attempting to present the truth. And the truth is feared most by those who are guilty of something, be it minor or serious. Australia’s own Sydney Peace Prize winning journalist and filmmaker, John Pilger, does not mince his words when he describes the dangers of his profession: “Secretive power loathes journalists who do their job, who push back screens, peer behind façades, lift rocks. Opprobrium from on high is their badge of honour”.

Yet, opprobrium has been prevalent since time immemorial in all systems of government, in every civilization, in every culture, in every religion including atheism (“I believe there is no God”). Unfortunately, ‘dictators’ of varying intimidatory capacity operate in all spheres of life, at work, at school, in the home, in the community, even in the media. In fact, ‘bullying’ is a form of dictatorship and abounds “anywhere where one person has power over another”. It is despicably immoral. And highly devastating when exercized by one nation over another. But wrongs can be righted, as impossible as the odds may appear for great stretches of time.

One would never expect the British Government to apologize to the Aboriginal people of Terra Australis for the colonization of their land, for the humiliation of their civilization, traditions and dreamtime, and for the systematic genocide of entire tribes since the invasion began in 1770. It’s not in its political culture to apologize, even when compelled by history to withdraw ‘gracefully’ from nations colonized, infrastructured and exploited. Just as it has have never apologized to Greece for its Ambassador’s desecration of the Parthenon.

In contrast, however, the current Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, courageously made good a pre-election promise to offer a formal National Apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’ of aboriginal children forcibly removed from their supposedly “uncaring, uncultured, irresponsible” parents by the ostensibly more knowledgeable “Aborigines Protection Board” of the then Federal Government, from about 1909 to 1969. The dream of ‘Bringing them Home’ eventuated in the Australian Parliament on 13th February 2008, thus restoring Australia’s integrity in the eyes of the world and a great deal of national pride. The Prime Minister wept, hardened politicians from both sides stood clapping with tears trickling down their cheeks, a nation stopped in awe at this intensely emotional and historic moment, and most Australians cried and embraced as this noble gesture unfolded.

Personally, I cried without inhibition, just as I did in 1992 when I had the privilege of conducting a Greek Orthodox Memorial Service at Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli, during the first official visit by an Australian school to that hallowed resting place of our heroic fellow Australians. Together with Headmaster Nicholas Kyriacos, and Parish President Dr Thomas Savoulis, the students of St Spyridon College, Sydney, huddled together in prayerful gratitude and wept for the ultimate sacrifice made by their forebears. The graves of four Greek Australians also stared at us, reinforcing what we already felt intrinsically – that Australia is worth dying for when her freedom and democracy are threatened.

Time heals many ‘wounds’ and matures the soul. As children of immigrant parents we endured racial insults at random in the schoolyard from mates with whom we played football in Brisbane where I was born. If you know anything about Rugby League, you know this: unless you play with complete mateship when packing down a scrum, or defending your try-line or attacking to score, not only is your team going to be trounced, but you will be very sore and sorry after the match. So, in our estimation, if we could be the best of mates on the ‘footy’ field, then the only explanation for the name-calling was because our mates’ parents spoke uncharitably about Greeks in the privacy of their homes. In retrospect, this was tantamount to insulting our ancestral civilization by ‘chiseling’ away at the ‘temple’ of our identity, smashing the ‘statues’ of our cultural derivation, even sawing off ‘metopes’ from the citadel of our past. As children we did not understand the concept of ‘immorality’. But we had a fair idea of what was right and what was wrong. And what these parents were doing was wrong.

Despite these setbacks, we ended up comfortably bilingual and bicultural. We love Australia as our birthplace. We adore Greece as our ancestral homeland. And the saying still holds true: “If you are not proud of your past, you cannot embrace your future”.

Eventually, Australian Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam (1972 – 1975) and Malcolm Fraser (1975 – 1983) did much to legislate for and implement equality for all Australians. Again, many wrongs were righted by strong leadership and a humane approach to people from a diversity of cultures and faiths through Anti-Discrimination and Muticultural policies enshrined in law. Australia led the world by example. Attitudes can change. Some more slowly than others. But they can and they do and they will.

In 1971 I visited the British Museum in London and was in awe of the order, the spaciousness and the professionalism with which the ‘Elgin Marbles’ of the Parthenon were arranged for maximum pleasure of the visitor. Provided with a programmed headset to guide me through the exhibition, I gazed upon the friezes and statues of the Hellenes and felt betrayed by history. “Why are they not in Athens?” I asked naively of an attendant. “Because Greece does not have the facilities to do them justice and this is the best place in the world for them!” was the response. Uninformed as I was at the time, I fell for it. My reaction was to leave in disgust at Greece for her ‘incompetence’, and resentment towards the British Museum for taking advantage of it.

An English visitor to Athens in 1803, H.W. Williams, wrote ‘when Elgin’s agents removed the Caryatid from the (nearby temple of) Erechtheum, Athena wept over her lost virginity. But there were louder lamentations from the remaining Caryatids as they looked on their ravaged sister. And later, as Elgin’s labourers were hauling the last of the marbles to Piraeus they had to stop suddenly and drop them to the ground, nor could they be prevailed upon to carry them further, protesting that they could hear the doleful moans of Athena deep within each vein of marble’ (David Hill, ‘The Elgin Story and the History of the Parthenon Marbles’, 2000).

In 1985 I visited the Louvre Museum in Paris for a glimpse of the ‘Mona Lisa’. As I walked up the Daru steps with my wife, we unexpectedly realized that the prized exhibit atop the elegant staircase was none other than the Winged Nike of Samothrace. “What is such a precious masterpiece of Greek sculpture doing in a French museum and in the most prominent position of the building?” I pondered. Agitated by the injustice of history once again, we moved through the brilliant museum until we came upon Aphrodite of Milos or ‘Venus de Milo’ as she is now referred to. Another painful jab to our cultural spirit. By the time we reached the ‘Mona Lisa’ we briefly admired her Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, we apologized to her for having neither the appetite nor the patience to fully appreciate her painful stare, and left the Louvre hastily.

The feeling of inner emptiness and anguish cannot be described in words. It is like the birth or death of a family member. One must experience these events emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, aesthetically, personally, in order to comprehend the unique significance of both.

I would feel this way again in 1992 when I entered the Byzantine church of St Saviour in Chora, Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. I had studied this church extensively at Thessaloniki University and knew it like the back of my hand, without ever having visited it. On its walls are to be found the remnants of the most exquisite frescoes and mosaics in the world. It was taken by the Ottomans after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. then converted to a mosque. It is now a museum. Having to pay an entrance fee to enter a church built for Christian worship is heart-wrenching.

The climax of such emotions would be experienced upon entering the most historically significant Orthodox cathedral in the world – the church of Agia Sophia, ‘The Holy Wisdom of God’, also in Constantinople, now also a museum. Again, having to pay a compulsory fee to enter one’s spiritual ‘home’ is enough to test one’s Christian discipline to the limit, especially adherence to Christ’s heavy exhortation: “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”! (Mth 5:44).

Here where the 2nd Ecumenical Council of the once united Christian Church was held, on the gallery level; here where the God-bearing Fathers of the Church and Ecumenical Patriarchs celebrated the Divine Liturgy and preached the Word of God; here where precious icons, holy relics and sacred objects were looted and stolen by the Crusaders; here where the Ottomans denuded the most revered mosaics, installing Islamic symbols hanging from the ceilings and from disharmonious chandeliers after the conversion of this Cathedral to a mosque, surrounded by four huge minarets…

Here, as an Orthodox Christian I was compelled to tremble in silence and absorb the blunt fate of history. Sadly, as if to rub salt into a still open wound, the glossy, lavishly produced books on sale at Agia Sophia, written by leading Turkish byzantinologists and archaeologists, made no reference to the fact that this was once even a Christian church – such blatant irreverence to the ideals of their denoted professions and clear proof that not everyone who writes history or comments on it is necessarily committed to the truth. Prejudices invariably poison cultural morality.

Two weeks ago I visited the strikingly elegant and contemporary marvel that is the ‘new’ Acropolis Museum in Athens. A truly astonishing building which owes its concept to the elder statesman of modern Greece, Prime Minister then President of the Hellenic Republic, Constantinos Karamanlis, its vigorous promotion around the world to the inimitable celebrated former actress and Minister for Culture, Melina Mercouri, and the genius of the design to the accomplished Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi together with the consummate Greek architect Michalis Photiadis. Located in Athens’s historic area of Makryianni, the New Acropolis Museum stands less than 300 metres southeast of the Parthenon.

Before even entering the museum proper, I was already impressed. Together with many fascinated visitors I stood on the glass floor at ground level observing a neighbourhood of ancient Athens below, discovered during excavations before construction of the museum and preserved intact. Upon entering the building I was entirely reassured by the security arrangements, like one finds at modern airports. I was rather dismayed, though, when I asked for a personal headset to guide me through the museum, only to be told by an attendant that such devices are not available, as they are in the British Museum.

Determined not to be disheartened by any comparisons, I placed my one-euro ticket into the electronic turnstile and found myself mesmerized by the proportional utilization of technology, the sophisticated building materials and structural techniques both inside and outside the building, the refreshingly inspiring use of energy-efficient natural lighting and the exquisite presentation of over 4,000 ancient artifacts exhibited magnificently in 14,000 square metres of display space.

As I weaved my way effortlessly through the museum, I realized that one does not really require a personal headset here. The natural flow of the exhibition areas guides visitors inaudibly and systematically in the appropriate direction. With more than 10,000 visitors every day, “the movement sequence through the museum artifacts is designed to be of the utmost clarity” (Bernard Tschumi).

Single statues are spaced generously apart and identified effectively with clear descriptions in both Greek and English. They stand like ancient Athenians walking through the galleries, mixing with contemporary Greeks and visitors from around the world. Much thought has gone into making all levels of the building accessible to both people with disabilities as well as to the elderly. This is a world-class museum, with state-of-the-art facilities.

Uplifted as I was by the astonishing features of the building and as excited as I was by the breathtaking ‘feel’ of this ‘sacred’ place, I was about to be hit by a ‘scorcher’ from left-field.

My visit to the bookstore on the second level was both deflating and instructive. I asked a young male attendant neatly attired in museum uniform “which of all these books on sale would provide me with a detailed account of Lord Elgin’s mutilation of the Parthenon”? The young man leaned towards me and whispered “none of these books on sale demeans Lord Elgin. It is considered ‘politically incorrect’ here”! I retorted in a calm but firm voice “Why such a defeatist attitude? This entire museum was built to argue the return of the Parthenon Marbles from Britain”. He looked at me with equal disillusionment and referred me to a downtown bookstore and a particular encyclopedia for the information I was seeking. I had already studied Lord Elgin’s vandalism at length. I was simply looking for a relevant booked endorsed merely through its sale by the new museum.

I then approached a young lady in another section of the bookstore and asked about audio-visual materials explaining the museum and its exhibits as well as the deeds of Lord Elgin. Her reply was simple and forthright: “Lord Elgin did not steal anything from the Parthenon”. Surprised, I retorted with “I beg your pardon?”, to which she immediately responded, as if to edify my ‘ignorance’, with a bizarre statement: “Lord Elgin did not steal anything because there were simply no laws in existence at the time”.

Before I could respond, another female attendant questioned her wisdom in saying what she did and discreetly tried to stop her from further commentary. I said to the first young lady “You stated that at the time of Lord Elgin there was no law. Let’s leave that to one side. What about moral law”? Her response was most revealing. “Oh, we weren’t taught that”! Then without provocation, she continued: “And anyhow the Elgin Marbles will never return to Greece. They belong to the British Museum. And furthermore, do you think the average Greek ‘gives a hoot’ whether the Marbles return or stay where they are?”

I thought to myself “Astonishing! This girl is employed in the wrong museum. What a perfect advocate for the British case against returning the Parthenon Marbles”. Had I asked a Greek taxi driver or the man sitting patiently behind some ‘periptero’ kiosk on any corner of Athens I probably would have been buoyed at least by a small quip of patriotism. Then again, in modern Greece, ‘patriotism’ is identified with ‘nationalism’. It is taboo, and in the words of many cultural elitists, ‘nationalism’ has no place in a European Greece. A strange neo-paganism is raising its head in Greece. And it has nothing to do with the wise philosophers of antiquity who demonstrated deep humility when dedicating a statue to the ‘unknown God’, just in case there was one…

But by whom was this young lady not taught moral law? By her teachers in a Greek education system which, up until recently, could not agree on the historical correctness of a Year 6 primary school text book? Or by the administration of the new Acropolis Museum?

While Greek Minister for Culture Antonis Samaras openly speaks of “crime” and “plunder” on the Parthenon by Elgin and his cohorts, Professor Dimitris Pantermalis, President of the Board of Directors of the Acropolis Museum, who has been involved with the project since its inception, is more guarded. “It is not even a question of legality,” he states. “The unity of the marbles is a matter of culture and ethics.”

Precisely my point. More so, it is a matter of morality. But why is the commentary of the museum staff so varied and erratic? Could it be that, for very practical reasons, there was not enough time to train them adequately before the grand opening? Could it be that Greece is taking a pluralistic approach on the whole issue? Could it be, on the contrary, that Greece’s standard of diplomacy has been refined and disciplined through a strategy without extremes, aiming to entice the global community towards pressuring the British Museum? Was my reference to Lord Elgin offensive to some higher authority? Or was the young lady who happened to serve me just going beyond the terms of her employment? Whatever the case, the Board of Directors had better address this matter expeditiously. It’s embarrassing.

However, my next visit was to the modern auditorium of the museum, where I watched a screening of the 14-minute animated film by renowned writer, director and producer, Constinin Costa-Gavras. With a vast array of impressive international awards, including an Oscar for his film ‘Z’ (Best Foreign Language Film) Greek-born Gavras, now 76, “is one of French cinema’s most internationally feted writer-directors, having made some 20 films over 45 years. He is a naturalized citizen of France, has a French knighthood and in 2007 became president of the Cinémathèque Française, one of the world’s largest film archives, lavishly re-housed in a Frank Gehry building across the Seine” (Maya Jaggi, The Guardian, 4 April 2009).

He is also a declared atheist (whatever that means) who doesn’t have much time for the Christian Church, especially Greek Orthodox priests. This was to become more evident in vitriolic statements to be made by him over the next few days while I was in Athens.

I watched his brief documentary at the New Acropolis Museum. It really did nothing for me, apart from take me on a mediocre and confusing journey through the Parthenon’s history which focuses more on black-clad Christians amateurishly clambering up the columns of the Parthenon hammering at what seemed like friezes on the metopes, rather than highlighting the diplomatically ‘engineered’, systematic, intentional, professional and criminal desecration of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, made possible through the blatantly un-Christian and fraudulent activities of a 27-year-old English clergyman, the Reverend Philip Hunt.

Whilst Gavras’s animation did little to edify me, his audio text hit me for a proverbial six. It portrayed the Greek Orthodox Church in a worse light than the Crusaders. Significantly, the animated documentary went rather softly on Elgin. For reasons unknown to those of us who don’t mind the whole truth being told, Gavras portrayed only selective incidents of damage to the Parthenon, and even those selected were dramatized disproportionately to their historical context. For such a heralded film maker to give the visitor a badly fragmented history of the whole Parthenon story is curious in the least.

Despite all, I am in two minds about the intervention of the Church of Greece on censoring the Gavras animation, albeit for just a few days until public outcry forced the restoration of the original. If only the ‘anti-censorship’ lobby was as passionate about restoring the missing Marbles of this almost perfect citadel, stubbornly being ‘edited’ from their integral whole by the British Museum till this day. The black-clad men damaging the Parthenon were presumed by the Church to be Greek Orthodox priests. I personally did not perceive them as such in the film. Nonetheless, Gavras, after concerted negotiations by Professor Pantermalis with the offended film maker, who demanded that his name be removed from the credits should the filmette be censored, finally came out with a statement ‘clarifying’ that the black figures were not Greek Orthodox priests but ordinary Christians dressed in common ancient attire. How magnanimous!

On the one hand it was a public relations disaster for the Church of Greece in the media and temporarily damaging for the Museum itself. On the other, the Church of Greece rightfully felt betrayed by the lopsidedness of Gavras’s documentary. Indeed, most archaeologists agree that the construction of the Greek Orthodox Church of ‘The Athenian Mother of God’ (Panagia i Athiniotissa) which stood within the walls of the Parthenon for almost a thousand years, protected the ancient building from all manner of attack and pillage.

Finally, I reached the top-floor gallery. There, I breathed in the spirit of my ancestral past with an enormous sense of pride for the Greece of today that had competently managed to construct one of the great museums of the world.

As I gazed upon the outstanding arrangements of the statues and friezes exactingly designed by the brilliant Phidias in antiquity, the white casts of the missing pieces, most of which are still to be found in the British Museum of London, equally engaged my interest. Moreover, the gaps between the statues of the pediments, so ingeniously exhibited, are a powerful challenge to those responsible for ‘cultural morality’ around the world. They are alarm bells to all Boards and curators of Museums and to all governments. The prevailing phobic attitude relating to the restitution of a handful of masterpiece entities stolen during convenient historical periods, needs to be reviewed.

The Greek and British governments will continue to put their cases analogous to their moral conscience. Archaeologists and lawyers will continue to argue the same tired line of possession. But the Parthenon Sculptures held for two centuries in the British Museum will return to Athens and take their rightful place in the new Acropolis Museum. When, I cannot possibly predict. But they will return, for sure, because the moral constipation caused by British intransigence can be cured by good will. After all, Greece is not requesting the return of all her ancient artifacts from every museum around the world. Only the Parthenon Marbles from London, because they are an integral component of one single work which has been torn apart. It’s like separating a child from its mother.

The Greek ‘Bringing them Home’ or ‘Return the Marbles’ campaign commenced decades ago by passionate individuals and proficient organizations of Greeks Abroad, as well as by philhellene politicians and academics from around the world. They are supported by millions of Greeks and devotees of Hellenic civilization across the globe. Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles and similar committees in other nations are putting their sophisticated case strongly to many international fora. Pressure is mounting every day on the British Parliament, most of whose members are in favour of the Return of the Parthenon Marbles, should the question be put to the vote. But which leader will have the moral fibre to put forward the motion? History will tell.

Of course, Greece will not betray her own moral conscience by refusing to offer the Olympic Flame to Britain for the London Olympic Games in 2012, as some foolish hot-heads from around the world are calling for. Greece respects her role in promoting global harmony too much to betray her own eternal ideals. The Olympic Flame is a symbol of peace and unity amongst the peoples of the world.

In the end, it will be ‘people power’ that will procure the return of Greece’s ‘Stolen Generations’ to their home. And that home-coming will be celebrated by the whole world, especially by the British people, the majority of whom are at odds with their government over its refusal thus far. Hopefully, a by then converted Richard Dorment of the London Telegraph might be assigned to cover that glorious event.

In the meantime, whilst the whole of Greek civilization does indeed “belong to the world”, like all Hellenes, I will always have a more powerful judgment on this issue than Richard Dorment ever will, because Greece is in my DNA. It is not in his. I pain for the Parthenon’s ‘Stolen Generations’. He does not.

As for his ludicrous suggestion that Greece should be so indebted to His Lordship, Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, that she should “erect a statue of him near the Parthenon to express the nation’s gratitude to him for saving the marbles”, pray that this pompous proposal never comes to fruition. Because, should the Greek people ever be so provoked, a world-wide competition for the most appropriate design and arrangement of such a statue-setting will certainly not be at all flattering either to Elgin or to the British Government. Of course, Greece will never stoop that low. It doesn’t have to. The missing pieces in the New Acropolis Museum are already a daily humiliation to the British Museum’s mulishness.

Father Steven Scoutas
The Millennium Heritage Council
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia

Published in the Greek Australian Vema, August, 2009.

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