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A new home for the Parthenon Marbles

Greece has built the New Acropolis Museum to re-house artefacts that there was no space for in the old museum on the Acropolis itself. It is no secret though that the key reason for the museum was to help secure the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum.

The Australian [1]

Athens builds a home for Parthenon’s marbles
Helen Vatsikopoulos | June 20, 2009

THE New Acropolis Museum in Athens will never become a landmark building. It will not be like Joern Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, its towering tiled sails reaching over the harbour, or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, with colossal steel whorls dominating the landscape.

But the city of Athens already has such a building, Phidias’s Parthenon. He designed it in the mid-5th century BC, funded by a hefty stimulus package to rebuild the archaic temples destroyed by the Persians; it’s still standing. The temple atop the Acropolis hill overlooking central Athens survived virtually unscathed for almost 2000 years, only to suffer its worst damage in the past 400: Venetian cannon balls, Ottoman dynamite, a bad restoration and acid rain have all taken their toll, along with an act of vandalism perpetrated by one man, a British diplomat. More on Lord Elgin later.

The $220 million New Acropolis Museum can never hope to compete with the Parthenon and was never meant to. It looks as modern as the Parthenon is ancient and sits at the foot of the Acropolis, 500m away.

French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum is a three-storey angular structure of grey concrete, steel and glass, austere enough to have made Stalin proud. It resembles two cavernous airport hangars on top of each other, crowned by a large greenhouse that is skewed at an angle. Yet when it opens officially to much fanfare today, it will be considered the most important building in Athens since the Parthenon.

Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum was a long time coming; 30 years in fact. There were three national architectural competitions, then a fourth for invited international entrants. The Greeks didn’t want a building that was going to speak for itself but for its exhibits. It was never going to have the remotest chance of outshining its contents.

The man who oversaw construction is archeology professor Dimitrios Pandermalis. We meet at the museum’s main entry plaza and it immediately becomes obvious why the project took 30 years to bring about.

Athens is an architectural palimpsest. Every time a shovel entered the earth, a new relic or foundation emerged and work would come to a halt as bulldozers were exchanged for archeologists’ brushes.

Pandermalis points down to a large cut-out in the plaza floor revealing a network of ancient foundations. “Here we have ruins of the city from different periods, from classical times … and Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times and we are happy to include in the museum the urban life of ancient Athens. There are houses, streets, baths, workshops, everyday life,” he says.

The museum is quite an architectural feat. It had to be erected on 100 steel columns above the ruins. “This was an intensive collaboration between architect and archeologist. We spent a winter deciding the right position of the columns so there would be no damage.”

As we enter the building we walk over a glass floor and at that point the airport hangar disappears and we are floating above ancient Greece. Suddenly Tschumi’s vision is clear. The New Acropolis Museum is a narrative. It is full of references to the Acropolis and reflections of the city’s history. The capacious corridors are bathed in light and a wide central staircase leads us up into the galleries. The ascent mimics the climb needed to get to the top of the Acropolis across the way.

The first two floors house the statues and artefacts epitomising a defining period in history, the classical era when the foundations of Western civilisation were laid. Then we climb again to the light-filled glass box that is the jewel in the crown. This comprises the exact dimensions of the Parthenon and is skewed to be parallel with it. But the most important exhibits are still missing.

Pandermalis walks around the central walls of the room, the exact dimensions of the Parthenon’s internal cella where the Parthenon frieze of the Athenian festival honouring the goddess Athena stood. He points to the relief sculptures, but some are marble and some white plaster. The marbles ones are original friezes from the Parthenon. The plaster ones are copies of those now in the British Museum. “It is pretty crazy to see one piece in Athens, the other in London. So you feel the drama of separation of these sculptures,” he says.

We move to the sculptures at opposite ends of the room in both marble and plaster: Athena, Poseidon and their entourages. “You see the first figure is white, so it’s in London and the other two in Athens,” says Pandermalis. “Next is in Athens and the other in London. The head of Athena in Athens, the breast in London. This torso in London, the chest of Poseidon in Athens. We have to discuss how to solve this today because this is not the 19th century, it’s the 21st century.”

Which brings us to Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin. Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s when Greece was two decades away from gaining independence. Elgin was on the lookout for quality plasterwork for his new mansion in Scotland. What began as a sketching expedition to copy some classical motifs ended with his men sawing off 17 statues from the Parthenon pediments, plus 15 metopes – relief sculptures from the outer walls – and half the sculptures from the inner cella walls, as well as objects from elsewhere on the Acropolis. Elgin claimed to have permission from the Ottoman authorities ruling Greece; but did they grant him permission to take a few pieces or the hundreds to which he helped himself? Scholars disagree.

Be it hubris or divine intervention, Elgin fell on hard times and sold the sculptures to the British Museum. By law they now belong to the museum’s trustees. According to the Greek constitution they are the property of the Greek state. For years the British Museum claimed it was best placed to look after the marbles: the others left on the Acropolis were being eaten away by acid rain. That argument no longer stands. The New Acropolis Museum is the best propaganda tool that Athens has to offer. A reason for its existence is to bring the marbles home.

Fronting up to the British Museum, I feel a strange sense of deja vu. It’s neoclassical in architectural style and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then it defers to the Acropolis and the classical age. The museum’s director Neil MacGregor, who has been instrumental in helping the Iraqis safeguard their treasures during the recent war, is away. I meet deputy director Andrew Burnett in the windowless Duveen Gallery, where the Parthenon marbles acquired by Elgin are exhibited.

Away from the Greek light, they look pale and homesick. Burnett is not amused when I compare the British Museum’s assistance to Iraq with its refusal to restore to Greece the country’s most famous treasures. “Well, I don’t think there is much of a parallel between an invasion of Iraq and Elgin working with the Ottoman authorities to record and remove the material. That was entirely correct at the time and above board and legal and obviously a situation of warfare today is very different. (If) warfare engulfed other countries we’d want to do our best to help preserve the antiquities there as anywhere else,” he says.

But not Athens. Burnett has already had a look inside the New Acropolis Museum, so does he believe its existence makes the return of the Elgin marbles a little more likely? “Yeah, um, well, I don’t think so. I mean, obviously it’s terrific that the new museum has been built and has such good facilities, but as I think you probably know, we believe strongly the marbles belong here. (They were) properly acquired originally and are an integral part of the collection today that can be enjoyed by the public or used by academics, so I think we don’t see the arrival of the new museum as actually changing the dynamic of that argument.”

When the New Acropolis Museum opens this weekend, the Greeks won’t be expecting any housewarming presents from the British. Last week there was a conditional offer from the British Museum for a loan of the marbles. The Greeks might have them for three months, but only if they promised to return them to their legal owners. They both agreed to disagree.

Helen Vatsikopoulos’s next report on ABC television’s Foreign Correspondent will examine the police killing in Athens of a 15-year-old boy last December and the rioting that followed. Tuesday, 8pm, ABC1.

Los Angeles Times [2]

Acropolis Museum to make its big debut online
6:52 PM, June 19, 2009

Designed to house treasures from the 5th century B.C. and beyond, the new Acropolis Museum in Greece is choosing to announce its arrival in a 21st century A.D. way.

On Saturday, the Acropolis Museum will live-stream the opening ceremony on its website, where you can watch various E.U. dignitaries speak at the foot of the original ancient site. The new museum, which is located 300 meters downhill from the famous ruins, cost $181 million to build and will feature 150,000 square feet of space that will be able to accommodate an estimated 10,000 visitors per day, according to reports.

Many years in the works — and beset with delays — the museum is designed by architect Bernard Tschumi and makes extensive use of glass and steel to afford visitors views of the surrounding hills. The building also pays homage to the Acropolis by placing remnants of the much-treasured Elgin Marbles at the center of the museum.

The Elgin Marbles — classical Greek sculptures dating from the 5th century B.C. — have long been a source of dispute between Greece and the United Kingdom, the latter of which took many of the statues nearly 200 years ago. The Acropolis Museum was built in part as a response to British claims that Greece did not have a venue suitable to display the ancient works.

Admission to the new museum is set at one euro — an enticement to tourists, whose spending makes up a large part of the Greek economy.

— David Ng

Kathimerini (English Edition) [3]

New Acropolis Museum set to open its doors
Parties squabble over credit for project

The New Acropolis Museum building, designed by celebrated Franco-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, is bathed in the glow of a sunset during the rehearsal for tonight’s opening ceremony earlier this week.

The New Acropolis Museum is set to officially open tonight during a ceremony attended by dignitaries from all over the world, but as the final preparations were being made yesterday, representatives of Greece’s two main parties argued over who should receive the kudos for bringing the long-awaited project to fruition.

Roads around the museum will be closed from 6 p.m. and the Acropolis metro station will shut down at 6.15 p.m. to facilitate the arrival of VIPs that will include the Presidents of Cyprus, Bulgaria and the European Commission as well as seven prime ministers. The ceremony is due to begin at 8 p.m. when Greece will unveil its 130-million-euro museum, which will house about 4,000 artifacts, some of which will be going on public display for the first time. Even before its inauguration, the museum is proving a big hit with Greeks and foreigners alike, as some 9,000 tickets have already been booked online at www.theacropolismuseum.gr.

However, as Greece prepared to host this global event, ruling New Democracy and main opposition PASOK argued over who was responsible for constructing the museum. The Socialists were apparently angered by a spot on state TV which indicated that the idea for the museum was provided by late conservative premier Constantine Karamanlis and had been seen through by his nephew and current Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. PASOK felt that late Culture Minister Melina Mercouri, who in the 1980s spearheaded a campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from Britain and promoted the idea of a new Acropolis Museum, should have been mentioned. “I am glad that Melina Mercouri’s universal dream has been realized after many years of effort,” said PASOK MP and former culture minister Evangelos Venizelos. “But I am sad that some people in Greece are trying to belittle or to politicize this major event.”

BBC News [4]

Acropolis now?
Razia Iqbal | 17:25 PM, Friday, 19 June 2009

Is there is a difference between the ownership of culture and the ownership of particular artefacts? I have been mulling this over while thinking about the significance of the opening of the new Acropolis museum in Athens on Saturday.

The structure is Greece’s answer to the British argument that there is nowhere in their country to house the Elgin marbles, the sculptures taken from the Parthenon’s frieze and brought to the UK, two hundred years ago.

Architect Bernard Tschumi’s glass and concrete building will house the stones Greece still has as its centrepiece, in a glass gallery which is angled to complement the angle of the Parthenon temple three hundred metres above it. And plaster replicas of the stones in the British museum will sit next to those Greece has in its possession.

The British Museum is willing to lend their bit of the Elgin marbles in theory, but the Greeks have to refused to acknowledge that the British museum is the legal owner of the artefacts. It is a controversy which matters because it forces us to debate the issue of culture and globalism – even though, in the case of the Elgin marbles, it sometimes feels as though it is more akin to a school playground spat.

Where do you stand on this issue? Should the Elgin marbles go back to Greece, or stay in the British Museum? Is that even the right question?

Shouldn’t the question be how do we deal with culture in a globalised world; how do we deal with monuments that have global significance?