December 1, 2008

A manifesto for the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 1:55 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

The New Acropolis Museum in Athens once opened may provide the strongest argument yet for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.

Financial Times

A manifesto for the Parthenon Marbles
By Peter Aspden
Published: November 29 2008 00:30 | Last updated: November 29 2008 00:30

It stands like a giant modernist spaceship that has belly-flopped by curious accident opposite one of the most important cultural sites on the planet. Polemics and controversy have been hard-wired into its being. It has taken decades in the planning, years in the realisation, and an extra few months beyond its intended inauguration in the fine-tuning. But, finally, the new Acropolis Museum (left), fresh home to the extraordinary artistic legacy of ancient Athens, is ready to open its doors to the public.

Next spring, visitors will set foot inside Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s glass-and-concrete edifice, all sharp edges and skewed angles, and address for themselves one of the the most intractable cultural disputes of modern times. When they travel to the museum’s top floor, they will see marble panels from the famous frieze that used to encircle the Parthenon, the symbol of Athenian democracy that stands like a staid, elderly relative, looking wearily across at the upstart building from its incomparable vantage point on top of the Acropolis a few hundred metres away.

Only about half of the original panels will be on view, of course. The remainder famously, or infamously, line the walls of the Duveen gallery in London’s British Museum, to which they were transported in the early 19th century by the Scottish aristocrat Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin.

The Greeks have long wanted their Marbles back, but the building of the new Acropolis Museum finally gives them the physical authority to buttress an argument that has too often relied on shrill sentimentalism and unsubtle jingoism. The museum is a provocation, an enticement, a tease. Tschumi has done everything other than daub slogans on the exterior walls to say to the world at large: “The Parthenon Marbles belong here, next to the building from which they were taken.”

The glass rectangle on top of the building is designed in the same proportions and at the same angle to the Acropolis as the Parthenon itself. It is flooded with natural light, and supported by concrete columns that, again, echo the architectural features of the ancient monument. The frieze looks proudly outward, as it did for centuries on its parent building, rather than brooding inwardly as it does in Bloomsbury. This, be sure of it, is architecture as propaganda.

One surprise, for those who have followed this debate along its tortuous path to the present day, is that the original parts of the frieze will be joined by plaster casts made in the 19th century of all the panels that reside in the British Museum. In an ironic touch, they even have a British Museum seal on them. More ironic still, says the museum director Dimitrios Pandermalis, the Greek government of the time had to pay for them to be made.

I ask him, as he shows me around the museum for a rare preview, whatever happened to the idea of leaving blank spaces for the missing panels, or covering the copies with some kind of gauze, as an emotive protest against their absence. “It was too dramatic,” he says softly.

He is right, of course: there is drama enough in the story of the Parthenon Marbles themselves. The frieze, the metopes and the wondrous pediments that constitute the Marbles represent the acme of classical Greek art. It was their excellence, combined with the neglect of the Ottoman regime occupying Greece at the time, that lured Elgin to Athens in the first place, and persuaded him to bring them back to London.

The status of Elgin’s excursion has been the subject of dispute, much of it dry and academic, for some 200 years. But it was vividly brought back to life in the early 1980s by the then Greek minister of culture Melina Mercouri, who began to make unashamedly emotive appeals for the return of the Marbles to Athens.

An actress by profession, and possessed of startling charisma, Mercouri was not just playing to the crowd. Greece had rid itself of its odious military junta only a few years earlier, in 1974; it was desperate to remind the world that its mothering of democracy stretched back a good few years earlier than that. What better symbol than the Panathenaic procession depicted in the Parthenon frieze, an indisputable artistic masterpiece of enduring political resonance?

But Mercouri’s appeals fell on the unsympathetic ears of the British Museum’s director of the time, Sir David Wilson, whose reply to her was abrupt to the point of rudeness. He accused Mercouri of “cultural fascism” and dismissed outright any Greek claim to the sculptures.

Over the past decade, the debate has quietened down but evolved in two important ways. The Greek government has cast aside the issue of legal ownership, concentrating instead on the need to unify the various pieces that comprise the Marbles in one place (begging the question: where?). At the same time the British Museum’s current director, Neil MacGregor, has articulated with much greater clarity and intellectual coherence its own case for retaining its part of the treasure, focusing on the museum’s unique ability to bring world masterpieces together under one roof and allow visitors to compare them.

Pandermalis is very much of the new, diplomatic school of cultural engagement. He says there will be no flash-bang polemics in the labelling and descriptions in the Parthenon gallery, and is determined to “remove the passion” from a debate which he concedes is infernally complicated.

“Every possibility is open,” he says. “It is a difficult issue, but it is also a challenge, to find a new approach to an old problem.”

He reserves his strongest language for events long gone, stating that the current impasse is the result of the “inappropriate way in which the sculptures were taken in the 19th century; in my opinion, it was vandalism”. But he says he respects the British Museum position, describing MacGregor as a “great art historian and an excellent museum director”.

I say to him that his best chance to re-unite the Marbles is to make a formal request for a loan from the British Museum. “I would very much like to do that,” he says, but he is a little wistful, for he knows that for most Greek sensibilities that would constitute an unacceptable backing-down. To request a loan is to concede ownership, and that is a step too far for any Greek government, which would be ridiculed by its electorate. It is a reminder that, in culture, to be open-minded may be a primus inter pares of virtues, but in politics it comes dangerously close to appearing supine.

For the British Museum’s part, it says it has received no recent formal request for the return of the Marbles (but makes clear that it would say no), nor has it been asked for a loan, long-term or otherwise. It also stresses that it operates independently of the British government, via its trustees – a nuance not always appreciated by its Greek antagonists.

So the argument is destined to be played out in these two starkly contrasting arenas, as tourists visiting both capitals of culture form their own views on the basis of what they see. Pandermalis hopes that the existence alone of the new museum will remove an important plank from the common argument (though not one put forward by the British Museum), that the Marbles are simply better cared for in London than they could ever be in Athens.

Tschumi’s building is certainly an important and impressive addition to the museum world, relying to an unprecedented degree on natural light (some views of the sculptures dazzle the eyes, a deliberate effect according to Pandermalis) and sprinkling its works all around the galleries, facing in different directions, to give the effect of perambulation rather than spectating from afar. Visitors can look around the ground floor, and see a temporary exhibition of objects recently repatriated to Italian and Greek museums after they had been found to be illegally exported. (A provocative show, I say to Pandermalis. “Yes” he replies.)

Pandermalis and Tschumi are speaking about the museum’s aims at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London on Tuesday; chances are Pandermalis will be calm and measured in his advocacy. The invective may have been removed from the the Marbles debate, but the issue will certainly be brought up by the audience. The familiar arguments will be raised, and there will doubtless be a sense of heads banging against walls.

What is to be done? Can the positions of Athens and London ever be reconciled? I have spent years listening to the arguments trudge back and forth and, as an interested observer and of Anglo-Greek parentage, would like here to propose a five-point manifesto to help break the deadlock:

1. The building of the new Acropolis museum is a big deal. Like the successful running of the Olympic Games of 2004, it symbolises the journey that modern Greece has made in a relatively short time from political and cultural volatility to self-confident maturity. It is worthy of celebration, and what better present could it have than the proactive, public offer of a loan from the British Museum of an important section of the Parthenon Marbles – let’s say the pieces taken from the two pediments that dominated either end of the monument? They are magnificent pieces of storytelling, and those stories should be told, for once, in one place. They should be brought together in Athens for a loan of three years. Following which there is the small matter of …

2. The London Olympic Games of 2012, which is also a big deal: an opportunity for the capital to bring a human face to what has become a bloated sporting franchise, and emphasise the event’s cultural importance. The philhellenism of the British is legendary, and no institution has played a greater role in teaching the world of the Greeks’ cultural achievements than the British Museum. The reunited pediments should come to London for the opening of the games, and remain there for four years.

3. By now, there will be so much goodwill flowing from one country to the other that there will be regular meetings between the two institutions to discuss constructive strategies of co-operation. Here is an issue that needs urgent attention: some of the separations of fragments between the two museums are downright absurd. The front part of the torso of Poseidon which dominates the west pediment is in Athens, the remainder of the torso is in London. These fragments, and other similar examples need to be reunited permanently, some in London, some in Athens. The current situation is risible, and profoundly disrespectful of the works.

4. The true maturity of the Acropolis Museum will come when it, too, can look beyond parochial concerns, and discuss the culture of the whole world as well as of its own backyard. It should establish an exchange programme with the British Museum that would see Greek treasures swapped for Assyrian, Egyptian and Roman counterparts. There is no better way of thinking about the whole world than to study the ancient art of the whole world.

5. There is no substantive fifth point, other than to say that once this level of cultural co-operation occurs, anything can happen. Public opinion shifts, inconceivable ideas become suddenly acceptable. Who would have thought, in the heat of the Cultural Revolution, that a few games of ping-pong would help eventually to bring China into the capitalist fold? The history of the Parthenon sculptures is not over by a long way. And we owe it to the remarkable humanistic legacy of ancient Greece to move forward on this vexed issue; for culture is politics by a different name, and if we cannot decide on the future of a few marble stones, what chance do we have to do the right thing for all the world’s dislocated peoples?

‘Presenting the new Acropolis Museum’ is at RIBA, London, on December 2 at 6.30pm. Booking at,,

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1 Comment »

  1. Jim Egan said,

    12.01.08 at 4:37 pm

    I was initially hopeful but then disappointed by Peter Aspden’s fragmentary plan to reunite the Parthenon Marbles (Financial Times, Nov 29th, “A manifesto for the Marbles”). His approach will perpetuate a game of slow-motion checkers.

    Earlier this year my firm presented the Greek government with an audacious plan to trigger the British Museum’s willing release of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece while dramatically boosting tourism to both countries. That plan will also provide corporate and / or sovereign sponsors with an iconic, once-in-history opportunity to promote and reinforce Europe’s common cultural and architectural heritage.

    Our project can resolve Greece’s centuries-old pain over the loss of its magnificent heritage from Western Civilization’s hilltop cradle, and fill a major gap in Britain’s rich cultural tapestry with an iconic artifact that continues to inspire generations of people regardless of age or nationality. This elegant remedy will enable Greece to: achieve otherwise elusive moral highground; alter the status quo’s otherwise implacable physics; engage national and global psyches; finesse the reconciliation long-sought by a majority of the Greek and British public.

    The real tragicomedy is why the Greek government cannot think strategically, learn chess, and checkmate the (secretly relieved) British Museum with a bold opening move.

    Rx For Parthenon Woes:

    Pity the Greeks
    for their loss of ingenuity.
    The end to their pain
    lies in Poseidon’s treasury.

    They could be home soon,
    the Metopes and the Frieze,
    Were a sovereign Jason
    to return this lost Fleece.


    Jim Egan

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