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Greece is now prepared for the return of the Elgin Marbles

For many years, one of the excuses for the British Museum’s retention of the Parthenon Sculptures was that there was no suitable place in Greece to put them. This has now been solved by the completed Acropolis Museum [1] which continues to receive overwhelmingly positive reviews.

National Post [2]

Saturday, October 3, 2009
Ready For The Return
The impressive new Acropolis Museum makes the case that Greece is all set for the Elgin Marbles
Ian McKellar, National Post

Let’s say you consider yourself something of a budding ruinologist. Perhaps you’ve visited some ancient Roman sites on a trip to Provence, maybe you’ve seen the pyramids or perchance you’ve even made it to Chichen Itza in the Mayan Riviera.

For such a cultured person as yourself, Greece presents a most appealing, if troubling, opportunity. The nation is the cradle of Western civilization, and Athens is chockablock with museums and historical sites — but always there are the whispers of bad traffic, of poor air quality, of stifling heat during the summer months.

The intrigued but uncommitted observer is precisely the type of person who might be swayed by the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, which opened to the public at the end of June. Some 30-plus years, countless delays and at least $210-million in the making, the ultra-modern structure was designed by Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi to rest at the foot of the Acropolis and house the treasures of that most famous of ancient Greek sites.

Besides being the jewel in the crown of touristic Athens, the museum is also intended as a political cudgel with which to beat the United Kingdom. Between 1801 to 1812, the Englishman Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, made off with a goodly portion of the marble sculptures at the Acropolis under somewhat murky circumstances, during a period in which Greece was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. Among his spoils was roughly 40% of the Parthenon frieze, a masterful 160-metre piece of sculpture that ringed the upper part of the Parthenon and depicted a great religious procession. Lord Elgin eventually sold these plundered marbles to the British Museum, where they reside to this day.

Greece is a country in which issues of cultural heritage take on striking levels of political significance. The fact that the British continue to hold these treasures of Greek antiquity has led the country’s politicians to trip over one another to denounce English villainy, and the construction of this new Acropolis museum is intended as a riposte to the British Museum’s claim that it couldn’t possibly return the Elgin Marbles to Greece because the nation had no proper site at which to display them. In fact, the Greeks felt so strongly about the subject that they arranged to fly in a delegation of foreign journalists, myself included, to take in their new showpiece.

British essayist and cultural gadabout Christopher Hitchens has long agitated for the return of the marbles to Greece. In a New York Times comment piece shortly before the opening of the museum he declared that the British Museum’s central objection was no longer operative: “The Greeks have now excelled themselves in creating a place worthy of its breath-taking contents,” he declared, adding, “It is impossible to visit Athens and not yearn for the day when Britain decides to right [its] ancient wrong.”

Despite the fanfare surrounding the museum’s opening, however, the British continue to reject Greek demands. In a curious public relations gambit, the British Museum recently offered to loan some of the marbles back to Greece on the condition that the Greek government acknowledge permanent British sovereignty over Lord Elgin’s loot. Greece rejected the offer. Government officials, though, seem confident they are on the side of angel. “Sooner or later, the marbles in the British Museum will find their natural homes,” said the museum’s director, Dimitrios Pandermanlis, during the opening festivities. “Of this I am certain.”

As for the museum, Hitchens was correct to pronounce it an impressive edifice. Built atop ancient habitations revealed during the building’s construction– and now visible through a transparent glass floor — the New Acropolis houses three floors of the most striking of Greek antiquities. The first two display free-standing marble statues of men, women and horses set amid full-length windows of thick glass. The effect is to introduce abundant natural light into the galleries, softening the brutalist concrete employed by Tschumi. Among the highlights of the lower floors are the caryatids, five oversized female statues that formerly supported the porch at an Acropolian temple. An empty space has been pointedly set aside for the sixth statue, which is in the British Museum.

But the focal point of the museum is the Parthenon Gallery, located on the top floor. The gallery is a glass chamber sitting at a seemingly strange angle that bears no relation to the rest of the museum; in fact, it was designed to face the Parthenon itself, 244 metres away. Here, all of the Parthenon sculptures have been assembled for the first time, with cheap-looking plaster reproductions filling in the sections currently housed at the British Museum. (The cheapness of the reproductions is undoubtedly intentional.) The purpose of the top floor is to display the frieze in its original configuration and in some semblance of its true context. The effect is powerful, with the Acropolis in clear view of its greatest treasures.

“We didn’t build this for the sake of the British,” the Greek Cultural Minister Antonis Samaras declared to the media in late June before the museum’s opening. “But look around. Does this not negate the argument that Athens has no place good enough to house the Parthenon Marbles?”

Indeed, with this new museum and other welcome changes made in Athens over the past few years (including a brand-new subway system, and large portions of the old town converted to pedestrian zones), the city rebuts those who would whisper that Athens is still not a worthwhile travel destination. For ruinologists, it is an essential addition to their to-do lists.

-Travel and accommodations provided by the Greek Ministry of Culture.