October 18, 2007

Should London finally lose the Parthenon Marbles?

Posted at 4:15 pm in Elgin Marbles

No longer does Greece have no where to display the Parthenon Marbles. But does this mean that they are now more likely to return?

Guardian blogs

Should London finally lose the Parthenon marbles?
A specially designed museum in Athens has reawakened the debate over the Acropolis sculptures. But will this be its final phase?
October 16, 2007 2:51 PM

The days when the Greeks played hardball with the British Museum over the Parthenon marbles ended long ago. Today, it is with an air of conciliation and collaboration that they approach Europe’s longest running cultural row. In fact, for the contemporary Greek lobby, actions now speak much louder than words.

It was in this spirit that the new Acropolis Museum opened its doors to dignitaries on Sunday. Officially, the excuse was the inaugural transfer of antiquities from the rocky hill to the glass-walled behemoth that forms their new home. Unofficially, however, this rendezvous with history (no sculpture has formally left the site in 2,500 years) allowed the Greeks to show off a spectacular exhibition space that has been on the drawing board for more than 30 years.

Over midday cocktails, Athenian officials could finally debunk the myth that they have nowhere to display the Periclean masterpieces. With the Attic light filing through its great pane windows, and the resplendent sun-soaked Parthenon temple seemingly within reach, the fact suddenly became blindingly clear: this is the place where all the treasures that once adorned this iconic monument should be kept.

No other locale can claim so exquisitely to be their natural home. If there is one backdrop that can remind visitors of the essential connections between democracy and classical beauty – the very notions that inspired Pericles and Pheidias to cooperate over their creation – it is here. By comparison, the British Museum’s Duveen Galleries, the setting for the 88 pediment statues, freize panels and metopes that Lord Elgin began to remove from the Parthenon in 1801, have never seemed as paltry or as small.

With the top-floor of the plethoric, three-storyed new building replicating the exact dimensions of the Parthenon, the sculptures can be presented in their correct positions and original configuration, just as they appeared on the temple. In places where the sequence of statuary is broken, the Greeks have decided to dramatize the loss by installing mesh-covered plaster copies of the originals in London.

Symbolically, the Greeks made sure that the first antiquity to be airlifted by crane from the Acropolis was a 2.5 tonne slab that had once been part of the Parthenon’s 160m Ionic frieze depicting the Panathenaic procession in honour of Athena. Sixty per cent of the frieze, extravagant in execution as no other in classical art, is in the British Museum, which also has the only pediment statue with its head intact.

If only in the name of scholarship, it is clear that these pieces should be reunited. And the Greeks are willing to go to any length to collaborate with the British Museum (in negotiations that have become increasingly amicable they have, for example, proposed exchanging any number of other antiquities in return). By the time the new Acropolis Museum opens next autumn, it is their hope their actions (and, in this case, the stones) will speak louder than any legal argument over the ownership of the objects.

And the tide appears to be turning in their favour. Repeated polls have shown that the proportion of Britons supporting the return of the sculptures far exceeds the number of those who still believe they should be kept in Bloomsbury. When visitors to the new museum stand in front of the artworks, it will be a question that they, too, will have to ponder. As a result, one thing seems clear: the moral pressure on the British Museum is only going to increase.

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