Byline: Rowan Moore Architecture Critic
THOMAS Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, may have been a chancer and cheat but by ripping sculptures from the Parthenon he helped save one of the world's great art treasures for posterity. By bringing them to Britain he also helped put Greek art at the centre of world attention, at a time when Athens was a little-visited backwater.
In the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles stand in pride of place among the artefacts of the greatest ancient civilisations and beat them hands down for grace and brilliance. If the great museums of former robber Empires were to return all their dubiously acquired loot to their places of origin, where would we be?
The Louvre, the great museums of Berlin, the Pushkin in Moscow, as well as the British Museum, would all be stripped half bare. We would lose the chance to see the works of different cultures side by side, and the many millions who find it easier to travel to New York or London than Nineveh would no longer see them. Would it, for example, have been clever to return the British Museum's Mesopotamian treasures to Iraq, given the recent damage to antiquities there?
Such are the well-known arguments for resisting Greek demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens. I have them used myself, with conviction, when others have taken the Greek side. Oh, really? I say, if these others happen to be North or South American. And have you considered giving Manhattan, or the Pampas, back to the Indians?
These arguments came in my luggage last weekend, when I went to see the new Acropolis Museum, the [euro]130 million project, 33 years in the making, whose main purpose is to refute at least one of the British Museum's points. Athens has nowhere worthy of the marbles, the BM used to say, and as the old Acropolis Museum was a squat drab bunker, they were right.
The new Acropolis Museum, built to house both sculptures from the Parthenon and other treasures from the Acropolis, sets out to show that Athens can make a place more fitting than is possible in the grey light of Bloomsbury.
Rarely has so much architectural effort gone into proving a point - but the project almost proved the opposite. It nearly showed that Athens couldn't actually make such a place. The new building has only arrived after decades of abortive effort, four different architectural competitions, protracted wrangling about its location and, according to the museum's architect, "about 100 lawsuits".
The site is at the foot of the Acropolis, close to the Theatre of Dionysos where the great tragedies were first performed, and in view of the Parthenon. It is archaeologically rich, with the intricate remnants of houses and streets from early Christian times. This is why some argued, vehemently, that the museum should be in a less sensitive location. Others argued with equal force that such a charged place is exactly where it should be.
The architect is Bernard Tschumi, Swiss-born, and now based in New York and Paris. He was a surprising choice. Tschumi is best known as a star of deconstructivism, the once avantgarde architectural movement that made a virtue out of clashing shapes, disorientation and flying shards of metal. There was little in his CV to suggest he could make the delicate judgments needed to create settings for precious antiquities.
Yet the finished building is surprisingly normal. It is sober and rectangular, in grey concrete, something like the 1950s civic museums you find in Mediterranean countries. Some Greek critics have called it too big for its site, but it is not overbearing and seems reasonably scaled, given its significance.
You ascend the museum in a slow spiral, first up a shallow glass ramp and then via escalators to the top-floor gallery, which contains those sculptures from the Parthenon that Elgin did not remove, and plaster casts of those he did. …