June 20, 2009

The opening of the New Acropolis Museum – a new chapter for the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 8:23 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

With the opening of the New Acropolis Museum, the campaigns for the return of the Parthenon Marbles will make a huge leap forward. What was previously one of the major (yet spurious) arguments against reunification (that Greece had nowhere to put the sculptures) is completely obliterated – but moreover, the British Museum is now on the wrong foot, as few could now argue that the Duveen Gallery represents a better location for the display of the Marbles.

The Star (Canada)

They want to take their marbles and go home
Now that Greece has a museum for Elgin’s booty the question must be asked: Who owns the past?
Jun 20, 2009 04:30 AM
Lynda Hurst – Feature Writer

They are known as the Parthenon marbles in Greece, the Elgin marbles in Britain, those “bloody stones” to the current Lord Elgin, who’s sorry his great-great-grandfather ever clapped eyes on them.

And the controversy long surrounding them is about to take another jolt.

Tomorrow in Athens, a new purpose-built museum will open at the foot of the Acropolis hill, housing 5,000 antiquities from Greece’s classical past. Unquestionably, the main draw will be a glass-enclosed gallery that directly overlooks the Parthenon, the temple to Athena, goddess of wisdom, that has stood on top of the Acropolis, the “sacred rock,” for 2,500 years. It’s just metres away.

Inside, the sculpted marble frieze that once covered two sides of the temple will be displayed. The half of it that has remained in Greece, that is. The rest consists of obvious plaster-cast copies, the originals of which, the Elgin marbles, have resided in the British Museum since 1816.

There is no attempt to disguise the fact they are replicas. Drawing attention to it is very much the point.

“This is a new beginning,” said Greece’s bursting-with-pride culture minister, Antonis Samara, this week, explaining that the old argument that Athens had nowhere suitably light- and climate-controlled to house the Elgin marbles is no longer valid.

The 200-year-old ownership debate is at an end, Samara declared. The British Museum must finally give way and allow a primary part of Greece’s ancient heritage to be repatriated.

Questions arise. Do monuments with global significance such as the Parthenon belong to modern-day states or to the whole world? What does that mean in practice?

If the Elgin marbles are returned, an unnerving precedent would be set. Not just Greece, but Italy, Egypt, Turkey and China have declared ancient artifacts to be state property and called for their return.

It’s why the world’s major museums are warily watching how the next chapter in the Odyssey of the Marbles plays out.

The word from London on the marbles’ return was bleak: The new museum makes no difference to the status quo. Whatsoever. Even a loan is out of the question because Greece won’t acknowledge Britain’s ownership.

“Never say never, but I can’t imagine the circumstances will ever change,” said a U.K. government spokesman. The Elgin marbles will stay where they are, “available free of charge in a museum that has more visitors than any other in the world.”

Britain’s accessibility claim is flatly dismissed by University of Toronto archeologist and classicist Dimitri Nakassis. “By that argument, they should be moved to a museum in Heathrow Airport,” he says from a dig in Crete.

But the argument isn’t about accessibility. As Ian Jenkins, the British Museum’s senior curator of ancient Greece, put it this week, the two museums serve different functions.

“In Greece, the sculptures can be viewed as part of the history of Athens and the Acropolis. Here, they can be seen as part of a world history.”

“On this issue,” says Alison Keith, U of T head of classics, “it’s utterly crucial to know the history.”

To wit:

From the fifth century to the 17th century, the Parthenon was in hard, continuous use, first as a Christian church, then – after the Ottoman empire invaded in the 15th century – as a mosque. The Turks ultimately used it as an ammunition dump, which exploded in 1687, resulting in irreparable damage.

By 1800, when Lord Elgin, Britain’s aristocratic ambassador to the Ottoman court, wandered on to the scene, the Parthenon was standing amid a shantytown-cum-garrison. The surviving fabric of the building was a fragile ruin.

Napoleon had already sent agents to acquire antiquities from Athens, especially the Acropolis. The locals were using it as a quarry. Travellers and collectors were helping themselves to pieces of sculpture, large and small.

(It’s because of these facts that Britain says Greece’s argument – if it had the Elgin marbles, more than 85 per cent of the original would be recreated – is absolutely untrue. Half the outer marble panels, a third of the inner frieze and more than half the statuary at both ends of the Parthenon have been lost to the mists of time, say the British, with bits and pieces scattered in other European museums.)

Elgin later wrote that it was “not part of my original plan to take with me anything else but molds,” but he had changed his mind: “The modern Greeks have looked upon the superb works … with ingratitude and indifference. They do not deserve them!”

He was granted a letter of permission from the Turkish court stating that his workmen could “remove, as they wish, certain pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures there on, that no opposition be made to them.”

Between 1800 and 1803, Elgin arranged for the removal of about half (some 75 metres) of the sculpted inner frieze, plus 17 life-sized marble figures and 150 of the 92 outer sculpted panels. Many of the pieces were chiselled or hacked off, but some were simply lifted off the ground.

In 1816, Elgin sold the works to the British government for the huge sum of £35,000, half of what they’d cost him in bribes and expenses.

Was Elgin a protector or a plunderer? Genuinely concerned about rescuing part of the marbles from further decay? Or an imperialist looter, guilty of cultural appropriation on a grand scale?

In academic circles, the jury remains out. But at the time, Lord Byron had no hesitation in damning him. In his epic poem Childe Harolde, he called Elgin a “spoiler,” and said Greece’s heritage had been “defac’d by British hands.”

The overwhelming consensus, however, is that right or wrong, Elgin’s actions saved the treasures he took from the neglect and pollution the remaining marbles were subject to for another 200 years.

Indeed, by the 1970s, Athen’s acid rain was so toxic that the face of a horseman on the building’s west side was all but obliterated. By 2004, many of the surviving marbles had been removed to the old Acropolis museum.

This week, the British Museum explained the reasoning behind its adamant stance:

“The question is, `Do you believe in the value of a worldwide collection here?'” said spokeswoman Hannah Boulton.

“If you agree with that first principle, then whatever you may think about the way material has been acquired in the past is secondary to that fundamental purpose.”

In his book,Who Owns Antiquity?, James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, argues that ancient artifacts are “evidence of the world’s ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders.”

U of T’s Nakassis doesn’t buy the “property of the world” argument: “The idea that antiquity belongs to everyone and is more properly appreciated detached from its context reeks, to me, of a kind of crass globalism.”

From a historical, anthropological, and archaeological perspective, he says, all the marbles should be located in Athens, “where they were produced and meant to be appreciated.

“I think most people would agree. All other things being equal, a monument should stay together so that it can be appreciated as an entity.”

Neither director William Thorsell nor anyone else at the Royal Ontario Museum agreed to discuss the controversy. No surprise to Victor Rabinovitch, director of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull.

“There are a lot of museum people staying quiet, hoping the British don’t move on this,” he says. “It’s a murky issue.”

The heritage argument is that objects shouldn’t be moved from their setting, he says. But the “enlightened liberal view” is that spreading artifacts to other locations around the world is how different cultures are exposed and explained to each other.

Rabinovitch won’t take a side, but explains the central arguments of both. Modern Greeks believe treasures such as the marbles, are their patrimony. The context in which they asked for their return in the past has changed, he says.

“Now they have a stable political situation and a new museum with environmental and security controls located as close as possible to the original site.”

The British Museum, conversely, has possession “and that’s nine-tenths of the law. It shows them to the world as part of universal, not just Greek, culture. The marbles are a signifier of the museum’s importance.”

Nakassis isn’t impressed by the latter argument.

“The loss of the marbles wouldn’t substantially diminish the importance of the British Museum. It has loads of jaw-dropping material from ancient Greece and Egypt and elsewhere.”

Indeed, it does. And that’s precisely why it will not, dare not, give in to Greece’s request – now or ever.
Lynda Hurst is a feature writer for the Toronto Star. She can be reached at lhurst @ thestar.ca

Associated Press

A glance at the new Acropolis Museum
3 days ago

Greece’s new Acropolis Museum opens to the public on Sunday. Here are some facts and figures about the museum.

Location: About 300-400 meters (yards) from the foot of the Acropolis hill in central Athens.

Structure: Three main levels, two intermediary levels. Constructed of reinforced concrete and steel, with glass panels.

Total area of glass panels: 1,202 square meters (12,940 square feet).

Total museum size: 23,000 square meters (250,000 square feet)

Exhibition area: 14,000 square meters (150,000 square feet).

Exhibits: About 4,000.

Opening times: 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (last entry 7:30 p.m.), Tuesday to Sunday inclusive. Closed Mondays.

Entry price: euro1 ($1.40) until end 2009.

Bloomberg News

Greece Renews Call for Parthenon Marbles Return as Museum Opens
By Maria Petrakis and Natalie Weeks

June 20 (Bloomberg) — Ancient gods and centaurs flickered to life, horses, owls and deer danced across the Athenian skyline, and statues of ancient girls blinked and tossed their hair as Greece opened its New Acropolis Museum, pressing its case that artworks from the 5th century B.C. Acropolis should all be housed together.

“If Pericles’ Acropolis was a hymn to beauty, harmony and liberty, the Acropolis Museum today is the Ark which brings together all of the ideas that the Parthenon has stood for ever, since antiquity,” Greece’s Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis said in a speech. The museum can help bring “the reunification of the Parthenon marbles. Because the Parthenon marbles speak in their entirety. This is the way to show the integrity of everything they stand for.”

Amid tight security and with a backdrop of animated scenes from the collection in the 130 million-euro ($181 million) museum, Greece is renewing its campaign to retrieve the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures taken from the Parthenon’s frieze to Britain 207 hundred years ago and housed in the British Museum. The ceremony was broadcast live on Greek TV and online.

Completed three decades after the first call for a design, and after court cases and archaeological finds delayed construction, the museum is Greece’s answer to the British Museum’s argument that there’s nowhere to house the Marbles.

Gods, Giants

The frieze depicts gods, giants, Greeks and centaurs in the annual Panathenaic procession. White plaster replicas of the stones in the British Museum sit next to the sand-colored stones left behind in Athens in the top glass gallery of the building designed by Bernard Tschumi. A terse “BM” is printed under the items still in London. Museums in Copenhagen and Paris are among others with sections of the stones.

Tschumi’s concrete-and-glass structure, with the gallery swiveled to complement the angle of the Parthenon temple on the top of the hill 300 meters above it, houses thousands of works from the Acropolis, some never seen before.

The museum is designed to show the historical and social background of the 5th century B.C., something, Greece contends, lacking in the presentation of the Greek sculptures in the British Museum. The frieze in Athens with its missing pieces is “like looking at a family picture and seeing loved ones who are far away or lost to us,” Culture Minister Antonis Samaras told reporters today.

Legal Owner

Successive U.K. governments have said the marbles won’t be returned. British Museum director Neil MacGregor, in a 2007 interview, said objects could in theory be loaned for up to six months, though this would be impossible while the Greek government refused to acknowledge the Museum as the legal owner. Samaras said this month that would be unacceptable to any Greek government.

The collection includes artworks such as “the Calfbearer”, the oldest statue on the Acropolis, dated to 570 B.C., and the “Cretan Boy”, created after 480 B.C., in the Archaic Gallery, which allows visitors to walk around the artworks. The artworks are placed to demonstrate the passage of time and impact of social and political events and how artists started to move away from the stylized forms of the “korres” statues to a more natural appearance.

The Caryatids, the columns sculpted in the form of females, stand in their original formation with a space for a missing member, housed in London. Even during antiquity the details of the backs of the statues weren’t visible, Alcestis Choremis, the retired director of Acropolis antiquities said.

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

To contact the writers on the story: Maria Petrakis in Athens at mpetrakis@bloomberg.net; Natalie Weeks in Athens on nweeks2@bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: June 20, 2009 14:01 EDT

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