Missing Their Marbles: As Greece Puts the Finishing Touches to a Building Fit to Hold the Parthenon Sculptures, Museums around the World Are Giving Their Fragments Back. How Much Longer Can the British Museum Cling on to Lord Elgin's Loot? Helena Smith Reports
Smith, Helena, New Statesman (1996)
Imagine a giant room, with giant glass windows, filled with sculptures of such beauty that they are hailed as one of mankind's highest achievements. Imagine this capacious space facing one of the world's exquisite monuments of classical art. Now place it against an Attic sky, a sky so bright that it not only illuminates the monument's marble surfaces, but floods the room with natural light. You have just imagined the Parthenon Gallery of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, at the foot of the masterpiece that epitomises the Periclean age.
After more than 30 years of preparation, procrastination and acrimonious debate, the building, which once seemed like a far-fetched dream, a last resort of the romantically inclined, is finally nearing completion. This month, labourers working under the watchful eye of the distinguished archaeologist Dimitrios Pandermalis began laying the [pounds sterling]94m behemoth's marble floors. Soon the curtain-wall facade of the three-storey edifice will be up; in November, British metalworkers (led by a man who, like Lord Elgin, is a Scot but, I am assured, is no admirer of him or his depredations) will begin installing the museum's gargantuan glazed-panel roof.
By next summer, visitors will no longer have to view treasures in the cramped confines of the current museum, which was hastily erected on the Acropolis hill after the Second World War. The new building, designed to house all the Parthenon marbles--including the 88 plundered sculptures that, thanks to Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, are now in the badly lit British Museum--will have opened its doors.
The possible reunification of the marbles makes even Professor Pandermalis, a man of infinite restraint, bubble with delight. "For the first time," he says, six years after he began overseeing the museum's construction, "we'll have a place appropriate for the sculptures of the Parthenon." Not only would Phidias's monumental procession frieze and other carvings be displayed within view of the iconic architecture they once decorated, but also--Pandermalis enthuses, as we walk through the museum building, up ramps that replicate the approach to the temples--they would be arranged as they originally appeared. Pointing to a series of apertures in the walls, he tells me how the temple's cella, or inner room, has been reproduced in the museum. "It exactly mirrors the building's dimensions and orientation down to the last millimetre."
But what if the British Museum won't collaborate? (It has so far shown no inclination even to discuss the issue, let alone change its mind.) Then, says Pandermalis, there will be big, empty spaces. "Maybe, in those places, we should just say, 'Go to London,'" he murmurs, before embarrassment prompts both of us to change the subject and emote over the stunning view of the Acropolis instead.
In the always bitter, often ugly, battle over the marbles, nothing has threatened to shift the debate as much as this. Each day, as the 14,000-square-metre building goes up, Athens is literally chipping away at the argument that the sculptures are better off in the sombre Duveen Gallery of the British Museum in London. The New Acropolis Museum, designed by the Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi and cosponsored by the European Union, will finally put paid to the claim that modern Greece has nowhere decent enough to house the remains of its golden age. For the Greeks, it will be the ultimate propaganda tool, more eloquent than any number of complicated legal arguments.
"Soon we'll be able to accelerate efforts for the marbles' return, find a different approach, perhaps a friendlier one," pronounced the Greek culture minister, Georgios Voulgarakis, when he visited the site earlier this year. A consummate politician, Voulgarakis is not one to speak out of turn. In recent weeks, perhaps fearing the "evil eye", he has refused to comment on how Europe's longest-standing cultural row might be handled in the critical months ahead. …