June 23, 2009

The New Acropolis Museum shows the Parthenon Sculptures in a new light

Posted at 2:11 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Few who have been inside the completed New Acropolis Museum would be able to argue that the sculptures could be equally well displayed in any other location outside Athens. Certainly, they may raise other arguments, such as the legalities of ownership, or how the sculptures supposedly form the basis for another institution, but the argument that they are better displayed elsewhere should now be considered irreparably null & void. Nowhere else is it possible to see the sculptures & the building that they were once an integral part of in the same glance. The pattern of light & shadows of the sculptures is replicated, as is the exact original spatial arrangement of them. Only in Athens is it possible to get a tru understanding of the scale & significance of the Parthenon Marbles.

New York Times

Elgin Marble Argument in a New Light
Published: June 23, 2009

ATHENS — Not long before the new Acropolis Museum opened last weekend, the writer Christopher Hitchens hailed in this newspaper what he called the death of an argument.

Britain used to say that Athens had no adequate place to put the Elgin Marbles, the more than half of the Parthenon frieze, metopes and pediments that Lord Elgin spirited off when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago. Since 1816 they have been prizes of the British Museum. Meanwhile, Greeks had to make do with the leftovers, housed in a ramshackle museum built in 1874.

So the new museum that Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss-born architect, has devised near the base of the Acropolis is a $200 million, 226,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art rebuttal to Britain’s argument.

From certain angles it has all the charm and discretion of the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan. Neighbors have been complaining all the way to the bank, housing values having shot up because of it.

Inside, however, it is light and airy, and the collection is a miracle. Weathered originals from the Parthenon frieze, the ones Elgin left behind, are combined with plaster casts of what’s in London to fill the sun-drenched top floor of the museum, angled to mirror the Parthenon, which gleams through wraparound windows. The clash between originals and copies makes a not-subtle pitch for the return of the marbles. Greece’s culture minister, Antonis Samaras, on the occasion of the opening last week, said what Greek officials have been saying for decades: that the Parthenon sculptures, broken up, are like a family portrait with “loved ones missing.” Mr. Samaras’s boss, Greece’s president, Karolos Papoulias, spoke less metaphorically: “It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.”

Don’t bet the British will agree.

Inside the museum visitors ascend as if up the slope of the Acropolis via a glass ramp that reveals, underfoot, ancient remains excavated during the building’s construction. (They will eventually be opened to the public.) It’s a nice touch. On the second floor archaic and early classical statues mill about a big gallery like a crowd in an agora, a curatorial and architectural whimsy that risks visitors missing works like the “Kritios Boy,” which nearly hides to one side.

As for the caryatids from the Erechtheion and the sculptural remains of the Temple of Athena Nike, including the sexy “Sandal Binder,” works of textbook import, they look a bit stranded on a balcony and in a passageway because the museum, save for the Parthenon floor, doesn’t have regular spaces. Free circulation puts everything on equal footing (this is the birthplace of democracy, after all), but the flip side of this layout is the failure to make priorities clear, which art museums exist to do.

That said, Athens needs new modern landmarks. The city is choked by slapdash buildings thrown up after the junta fell during the early 1970s. Public monuments ape ancient palaces, badly. Nikos Dimou, a prominent writer here, recalled that when a show of the British modern sculptor Henry Moore arrived years ago: “People complained about bringing monstrous forms to the land of beauty. Ninety percent of cultured Greeks even today live with this classical sensibility.”

A generation or two of well-traveled, environmentally conscious, globally wired Greeks has since come of age, and the Elgin Marbles debate now represents a kind of luxury that Greece has earned. It began with the actress Melina Mercouri during the 1980s, her publicity campaign coinciding with the rise of a populist leader, Andreas Papandreou, whose slogan was “Greece for the Greeks.” It has evolved into a less glamorous tangle of diplomatic and legal maneuverings, with Greece lately recovering some 25 antiquities from various countries, including some additional stray fragments from the Parthenon.

“This issue unifies us,” Dimitris Pandermalis, the Acropolis Museum’s director, said the other day, never mind that surveys show how few of them actually bother to visit the Acropolis past grade school.

As to whether Elgin had legal authority to remove the marbles, the Ottomans being the ruling power, as the British maintain, Mr. Pandermalis paused. “The problem is not legal,” he decided. “It’s ethical and cultural.” George Voulgarakis, a former culture minister, wasn’t so circumspect when asked the same question. He said, “It’s like saying the Nazis were justified in plundering priceless works of art during the Second World War.”

“I understand what museums fear,” Mr. Voulgarakis added. “They think everything will have to go back if the marbles do. But the Acropolis is special.”

That’s what the Greeks have insisted for years when arguing why the marbles belong to Greece, but they also say the marbles belong to the world when pointing out why they don’t belong to the British. The marbles in fact belonged to the Parthenon, a building here and nowhere else, the best argument for repatriation, except the idea now is not to reattach them where they came from but to move them from one museum to another, from the British Museum to the new Acropolis Museum, albeit next door — a different matter, if not to the Greeks.

“It’s the fault of a German,” Mr. Dimou said about Greek pride in this cause. He was referring to Johann Winckelmann, the 18th-century German art historian whose vision of an ancient Greece “populated by beautiful, tall, blond, wise people, representing perfection,” as Mr. Dimou put it, was in a sense imposed on the country to shape modern Greek identity.

“We used to speak Albanian and call ourselves Romans, but then Winckelmann, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Delacroix, they all told us, ‘No, you are Hellenes, direct descendants of Plato and Socrates,’ and that did it. If a small, poor nation has such a burden put on its shoulders, it will never recover.”

This myth required excavators on the Acropolis during the 19th century to erase Ottoman traces and purify the site as the crucible of classicism. The Erechtheion had been a harem, the Parthenon a mosque. “But Greek archaeology has always been a kind of fantasy,” Antonis Liakos, a leading Greek historian, noted the other day. The repatriation argument, relying on claims of historical integrity, itself distorts history.

For their part, the British also point out that the marbles’ presence in London across two centuries now has its own perch on history, having influenced neo-Classicism and Philhellenism around the globe. That’s true, and it’s not incidental that the best editions of ancient Greek texts are published by British, French, Americans and Germans, not Greeks. But imperialism isn’t an endearing argument.

So both sides, in different ways, stand on shaky ground. Ownership remains the main stumbling block. When Britain offered a three-month loan of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum last week on condition that Greece recognizes Britain’s ownership, Mr. Samaras swiftly countered that Britain could borrow any masterpiece it wished from Greece if it relinquished ownership of the Parthenon sculptures. But a loan was out.

Pity. Asked whether the two sides might ever negotiate a way to share the marbles, Mr. Samaras shook his head. “No Greek can sign up for that,” he said.

Elsewhere, museums have begun collaborating, pooling resources, bending old rules. The British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and other great public collectors of antiquity have good reason to fear a slippery slope if the marbles ever do go back, never mind what the Greeks say.

At the same time the Acropolis Museum plays straight to the heart, sailing past ownership issues into the foggy ether of a different kind of truth. It’s the nobler, easier route.

Looting antiquities obviously can’t be tolerated. Elgin operated centuries ago in a different climate. The whole conversation needs to be reframed. As Mr. Dimou asked, “If they were returned, would Greeks be wiser, better? Other objects of incredible importance are scattered around Greece and no one visits them.” Mr. Liakos put it another way: “It’s very Greek to ask the question. Who owns history? It’s part of our nationalist argument. The Acropolis is our trademark. But the energy spenton antiquity drains from modern creativity.”

The new museum finally casts Melina Mercouri’s old argument in concrete.

The opportunity is there.


New Acropolis Museum Worth the Wait
By Chris Bors
Published: June 23, 2009

ATHENS— The expression “slowly slowly” is used in Greece to say, “Don’t worry, things will get done … chill out” — and it’s safe to say that the highly anticipated and slow-to-be-realized New Acropolis Museum is worth the wait. New York–based Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi found out that he had won the commission to design the museum on September 10, 2001, so he barely had time to celebrate before the attacks on the World Trade Center dampened his spirits.

Now, eight years and a finished building (and some 100 lawsuits lodged on behalf of various parties) later, Tschumi can finally revel. Opening to the public for the first time on June 20 — 33 years after former President Constantinos Karamanlis decided to build a museum on the site, just southeast of the Acropolis — the €130 million ($175 million) building provides not only a new attraction in the Greek capital (accessible for just €1 for the rest of 2009) but also hope that another long-running struggle, with England over the return of the Elgin Marbles, will come to an end.

Constructed of concrete, glass, stainless steel, and, for the exhibition areas, local Helicon marble, Tschumi’s striking, ultramodern building complements, rather than detracts from, the classical structures on the Sacred Rock. The museum is divided into three stacked sections: a modest base perched on more than 100 slender pillars meticulously placed in order to not damage the ruins below; a double-height, trapezoidal exhibition area boasting some glass and some glass-and-steel facades; and, at the top, a low, rectangular, entirely glass-walled floor dedicated to the Parthenon and situated 23 degrees askew from the rest of the structure, in order to align with the ancient temple. Glass floors interspersed throughout the roomy, 150,000 square feet of exhibition space allow visitors to view the ruins below, which are lit with a warm, yellow glow at night.

The previous Acropolis Museum, finished in 1874, was located directly behind the Parthenon and, at a comparatively paltry 15,500 square feet, was almost immediately overburdened with sculptures, fragments, and artifacts from the Acropolis. Tschumi’s interactive design allows for spacious views and a more intimate contemplation of these treasures, using the site itself to contextualize the works. “The idea of simplicity is fundamental,” Tschumi said, while giving a gracious and thorough walk-through of the museum.

Four exhibition levels make up the museum, with the first being the archaeological exhibition of ancient ruins. As you enter the museum on the ground floor, you encounter a sloped ramp, which houses exhibits from the slope of the Acropolis. Concrete walls with large, porthole-like cutouts act as an acoustical sponge to cut down on the echo of visitors’ chattering. The second level includes the glass-walled, skylit Archaic Gallery, an airy, open space interrupted only by concrete columns that allows one to view the Archaic-period sculptures from 360 degrees, as they were meant to be seen originally.

Also on this level are works from the Propylaia and the Temple of Athena Nike, objects from the classical period to the end of antiquity, and the Caryatids from the south porch of the Erechthion, installed on a platform overlooking the atrium. This arrangement allows viewers to revel in the artworks’ so-called archaic smiles, their pleated garments, and their impeccably sculpted braided hair.

The top-floor Parthenon Gallery holds the frieze, metopes, and pediment of the ancient temple in their original proportions, with the panels suspended for optimal viewing. The pedimental sculptures, held by steel armatures, appear frozen in time, with discreet explanatory text placed below to not impede one’s view. Earth-toned originals of the frieze alternate with white plaster copies in a scene depicting ancient Greek myths, which is illuminated by natural light during the day. The missing pieces remain in the British Museum in London, a situation famously distressing to Greece and, according to one poll, 80 percent of Britons.

While there were many controversies and delays surrounding the building of the New Acropolis Museum — including quarrels over its location in relation to the newly discovered ruins, the style of the building, and the predictable political wrangling — the main dispute centers on the British government’s ongoing refusal to return the Parthenon marbles. Taken by England’s Lord Elgin in the early 1800s while Greece was under Ottoman rule and later sold by him to the British government for €35,000, the works — or their crude dismantling — remain a sore spot for all those involved in the new museum. Over dinner the night before the press preview, Tschumi confided, “The fact that it is one single piece of art is why it is not just a nationalistic issue. I don’t see it only as sculpture. I see it as a piece of architecture. I want to see it as a whole.”

Whether the marbles will be returned to their original home remains to be settled, but the architect remains optimistic, saying it’s a matter of when, not if. In a speech celebrating the museum’s opening, Greek Minister of Culture Antonis C. Samaras noted that the Parthenon sculptures “are meant to be seen in sequence and in total” and “are the most cherished symbols of our cultural heritage, the height of our achievement as a people.” Time will tell if the New Acropolis Museum ends up as the height of Tschumi’s career, but it is certainly a crowning achievement in architecture, integrating ancient history with the needs of a proud contemporary society as well as satisfying visitors and tourists seeking a cultural experience of the highest level.

Express (Greece)

First Visits to New Acropolis Museum

Following the official opening, which was marked by the claim for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, the New Acropolis Museum opened Sunday morning its doors to the public. Brandishing their tickets for a journey through time and place, Greek and foreign visitors enter the New Acropolis Museum to marvel at the unique exhibits. Symmetry and austerity, as well as the deafening silences of the statues make visitors feel enthusiasm and awe.

The tickets for the first three days were sold out in just a few hours, while their distribution took place through the e-ticketing service of the museum. There will be free touring in the first three days.

As of Wednesday 24 June, visitors can buy their tickets both online and from the museum’Αs box office. The museum will be open to visitors from 8am to 8pm, except Mondays.

For Information

The museum’Αs information office is located on the ground floor, near the box offices. For more information dial +30 210-9000901 or visit the museum’Αs website http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr./.

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