October 20, 2007

Will the New Acropolis Museum help Greece get sculptures back?

Posted at 1:48 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Will the opening of the New Acropolis Museum represent a turning point in the restitution campaign, or will the British Museum move onto a new set of excuses?

San Francisco Gate

Posted By: Edward M. Gomez
October 19 2007 at 05:59 AM
Despite new museum, Greece probably won’t get ancient sculptures back

Greece will not be getting the so-called Elgin Marbles back anytime soon – the British Museum in London owns them and won’t let them go – but at least the rest of the ancient carvings from the Parthenon’s legendary frieze and related decorative artworks that had been salvaged over the years will soon have a handsome new home.

Earlier this week, the ancient sculptures “began making their way down from Athens’ Acropolis via a series of cranes to a new museum built specifically to hold them” at the base of that famous hill. More than “4500 antiquities, most of which are marble sculptures from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., will make the trip after being enclosed in Styrofoam-filled boxes made of plywood and metal.” Reportedly, the precious artifacts have been insured for the equivalent of approximately $567 million. (Der Spiegel Online; also, the Scotsman)

Recordings of the late Greek actress Melina Mercouri singing “Never on Sunday” were not played as the first batch of antiquities made its descent by crane; as Greece’s culture minister in the 1980s and the early 1990s, Mercouri became an advocate for the return to her homeland of the Elgin Marbles (also known as the “Parthenon Marbles”). About the famous carvings, whose ownership, for some, remains the subject of dispute, the British Museum notes: “The Parthenon in Athens is a building with a long and complex history. Built nearly 2500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was…altered and [its] sculptures much damaged over the course of the centuries….By 1800[,] only 50% of the original sculptural decoration remained. Between 1801 and 1805[,] Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, to which Athens had belonged for some 350 years, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins…and brought them back to Britain. He acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities. Lord Elgin’s actions had the effect of preserving the sculptures that he acquired from further weathering.”

For those who watched the transfer of the Acropolis museum’s holdings begin, the sight of “the first sculpture to officially leave the ancient citadel since Phidias carved the artworks 2500 years ago” was one of “history in the making.” Designed by architect Bernard Tschumi, the new museum at the base of the Acropolis replaces a 130-year-old facility above, on the hill; it is expected to open next year. Now, almost a quarter of a century “after the Greek government launched its campaign for the return of the [Elgin Marbles] from the British Museum,” its new museum is expected to serve as “the ultimate propaganda tool” and effectively “do away with the argument that modern Greece is incapable of properly housing the treasures of its golden age.” Because a specially designed gallery in the new museum reproduces “the exact dimensions of the Parthenon temple, campaigners say [it] allows the marbles to be represented in their original configuration and context…in a way that could never be done in the British Museum.” David Hill, who oversees the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, observed of the new museum: “It is one of the most significant buildings in Greece for the last 2000 years….It leaves the Greeks in a position where they can present the surviving Parthenon sculptures in a much more meaningful and better way than the British Museum could ever do.” (Guardian, U.K.)

However, notes the Guardian in its news report, it is the new building’s “emphasis on loss – the absence of the 88 sculptures exhibited in London – that gives it a poignancy few other museums have. In place of the missing Elgin [M]arbles, officials have decided to hang plaster casts made from the originals…, copies that will be covered with wire-mesh veils.” Simon Gass, Britain’s ambassador to Greece, attended the first day’s moving of antiquities into the new museum. He remarked: “It’s a very impressive museum, but I can’t say much more than that.”

In a separate Guardian op-ed blog article, arts writer Jonathan Jones argues that the British Museum should never return the Elgin Marbles to Athens. He writes: “The best and only legitimate case for the return of the Parthenon Marbles is to say…it makes sense to reunite one of the world’s supreme works of architecture – the Parthenon temple that stands on its rock above Athens – with the extraordinary sculptures that decorated it. I passionately believed this after I first visited Athens.” Over time, though, Jones explains, he changed his mind as he began to understand that, to “claim a cultural identity between modern Greece and the ancient Greek city states [that] created Hellenic classical culture 2500 years ago is spurious.” He notes: “It is a fiction: no national identity is continuous in that way. To say Greek classical art ‘belongs’ to modern Greece is to demean the universal legacy of ancient Athens.”

A British reader of Jones’s commentary wrote in a reaction message: “London Bridge is currently situated in Arizona. Do we whine about it and sob our eyes out, yearning for the day it’ll be returned? No. The Greeks should stop being so ridiculous. It’s not as if they don’t have enough artifacts to go round.”

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