NOW LET'S RETURN THE ELGIN MARBLES ; after 33 Years the Acropolis Museum in Athens Is Finally Open - and It's Enough to Make a London Patriot Reconsider the Case for Giving the Greeks Back Their History
Moore, Rowan, The Evening Standard (London, England)
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 EUR 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. The gallery is Parthenon- sized, with a glass-walled passage running around it, allowing the long friezes that once ringed the temple with vivid scenes of battles and processions to be seen in their entirety. This oblong box is at an angle skewed from the rest of the building, so as to align exactly with the Parthenon itself, visible high on its hill.
There are good moments on the jour-nefrom ground to sky. Those early Christian houses that excited the archaeologists are revealed through holes cut in the floor, and there is a high-ceilinged first- floor gallery, beautifully lit with natural light, in which a grove of standing figures stand on chaste marble plinths. Tschumi doesn't like the usual clutter of museums, such as intrusive display panels and seating, and has kept it to a minimum, which creates an impressively calm atmosphere.
There are also some clunkingly awful moments. You enter, under a vast, clumsy portico, an elephantine proboscis propped on three thumping columns. Throughout the building, architecture gets in the way of the exhibits. There are too many fat columns, and thick joints between panels, and holes cut in walls and ceiling for purposes of acoustics or lighting. The serene sculptures are interrupted with too much visual noise.
Among the prime exhibits are the caryatids, the female statues which propped part of the Erectheum until replaced by replicas. They stand in an ugly pool of yellowish artificial light, in an airport- like zone, as if waiting their turn to be called for boarding by easyJet. Many of the details - botched-ujoins between wall and floor, or lines of metal that are supposed to be straight but actually wobble - show that craftsmanship has declined since the age of Pericles.
BUT the greatest crime has yet to happen. Two apartment blocks, from the first half of the 20th century, stand in front of the museum, rich in fine art deco and neo-classical decoration, and with riotous greenery on their roofs. The plan is to demolish them, to create a pompous void between the museum and the Acropolis. Yet the beauty of the site is in its multiple levels of history and human life, from the ancient Greeks to the early Christians, to the new building. To cut out these blocks, which are evidence that Athenians could create beauty in modern as well as ancient times, would be pointless vandalism.
So the museum, opened last Saturday with pomp and ministers, and motorcades and circling helicopters, is flawed. However, it does its job of storing and displaying the treasures of the Parthenon. One of the British Museum's objections to transferring the marbles has been crossed off the list. But does this mean they should, finally, go?
Standing there on Sunday, as the first members of the public flooded in, and armed with all the arguments of a London patriot, I felt my objections melting away. It is partly that the Parthenon sculptures form a single work of art, which has been arbitrarily dismembered. This work can never be completely restored but there is still much to be gained from having as much as possible in one place. Like a shattered figure, it is good to reconnect the head to the neck to the torso, even if the feet and hands are permanently lost.
To be more mundane, keeping the marbles will now be terrible PR for Britain. Each person who visits the new museum will see the same story: here is a great family of sculptures kept apart by the grouchy Brits, still exercising their imperial rights of loot and pillage. Most of all, the Greeks have shown, by building the museum, how much the marbles mean to them.
There is nothing, in short, quite like the Parthenon's sculptures, and returning them would not mean that the Louvre must return the paintings that Napoleon tore from the walls of Italian monasteries, or that Venice should hand back the art that the Crusaders stole from 13th-century Constantinople.
The British Museum should, with generosity and grace, hand back the marbles. They should do so without conditions, except one. They should demand that the Greeks show that they care for their own heritage, by saving those 20th-century apartment blocks.
The Greeks have shown, by building the museum, how much the marbles mean to them…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: NOW LET'S RETURN THE ELGIN MARBLES ; after 33 Years the Acropolis Museum in Athens Is Finally Open - and It's Enough to Make a London Patriot Reconsider the Case for Giving the Greeks Back Their History. Contributors: Moore, Rowan - Author. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: June 24, 2009. Page number: 38. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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