‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed By British hands, which it had best behoved To guard those relics ne’er to be restored. Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved, And once again thy hapless bosom gored, And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!‘ Lord Byron
The Parthenon in Athens was built about 447-438 BC to house a colossal statue of the goddess Athena. The temple was the crowning glory of a great programme of architectural renewal masterminded by Pericles, who was then leader of the Athenian democracy and it is still considered to be one of the most impressive buildings in the world. Despite its burning by invading Goths in 267 A.D., conversion into a Christian church in the early sixth century and Ottoman occupation from the fifteenth century it survived largely intact until 1687.
In contrast to the antiquity the long-awaited €130m Acropolis Museum is a modern glass and concrete building at the foot of the ancient Acropolis and home to sculptures from the golden age of Athenian democracy and after long delays was officially opened on 20th June 2009.
Unlike any other museum in the world this one has been designed to exhibit something it doesn’t own and the Greek Culture minister has said that he hopes that it will be the catalyst for the return of the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum in London because some of the sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, that originally decorated the Parthenon temple have been there since they were dubiously sold to the museum in 1817. The battle is now on between this, the new state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum, and the British Museum for the right to permanently exhibit them.
I say long awaited because the new museum was supposed to open in 2004 to coincide with the Olympic Games but as with most things in Greece deadlines and time keeping seem to count for very little.
In 2006 I went back packing in Greece for the first time and when I visited the Parthenon it only had a hopelessly inadequate old Acropolis Museum; It was small, hot and stuffy and overcrowded with lots of pushing and shoving, and there were so many treasures to show but it was smaller than a corner shop.
Later I saw the buildings where the famous marbles used to be before Lord Elgin removed them for personal fortune and the British Empire two hundred years ago when he hacked the statues off the buildings with blunt instruments and saws and sent them back to the England where the fifty-six sculpted friezes, depicting gods, men and monsters can now been found at Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury.
Looking at the damage he did in removing them made me ashamed because he might just as well have used dynamite! Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who ruled Greece at that time and the Turks gave permission for the removal without consulting the subjugated hosts on whether they agreed to this dodgy transaction.
To be fair to Elgin however it was the continuing destruction of classical sculpture in Athens that part prompted him to rescue for posterity what sculptures he could. The Parthenon had been reduced to a ruin in the previous hundred years during and after the Venetian siege of the Acropolis when the defending Ottoman Turks had used the Parthenon as a gunpowder store, which was ignited by a Venetian bombardment causing an explosion that destroyed the roof and parts of the walls and the colonnade.
Previously, around AD 450-500 the Parthenon had been converted into a Christian church and an apse built and at this time the whole of the middle section of the east pediment was removed, entailing the destruction of twelve statues in all. Part of the east frieze was taken down, and almost all of the sculptures on the east, north and west sides were deliberately defaced.
Well, not surprisingly, the Greek Government would now rather like them back, and why shouldn’t they? but the British in their retained imperial arrogance claim that the Greeks cannot possibly be trusted to look after such important antiquities and insist on keeping them in London.
The British Museum argues that London is a better place to make them available to the public because the British Museum with 6.7 million visitors in 2013, is the second most visited museum in the World after the Louvre in Paris. This is a powerful argument and one they can probably rely on for many years to come because in the same year the Acropolis Museum attracted only 1.4 million visitors which puts it way down the most visited list at about sixtieth.
Actually it turns out that we haven’t looked after the marbles that well ourselves and they have been irreparably damaged, first when they were sawn into smaller pieces to facilitate transportation and secondly when British Museum cleaning staff used inappropriate cleaning methods in the 1930’s which seriously discoloured the marble.
And it isn’t only the British Museum that has dubious ownership of important bits of Greek heritage and there are smaller plundered pieces at the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican Museum in Rome as well as other locations across Europe but already in advance of the museum opening some important pieces have been returned from France, Germany and Italy and also from a private collection in Sweden.
The opening of the museum represents the culmination of a cunning plan by the Greeks to get them all back because this new state of the art museum with environmental climate control to house the marbles is more technologically advanced than anything in London or elsewhere and now they will be even more insistent that they should be returned. Until they are they propose to keep a specially prepared room empty for them in the hope that this will shame the British into putting the plundered treasures back into their packing cases and finally returning them.
Good luck to the Greeks I say! They should be sent back, they belong in Athens at the Acropolis and if you ask me they should be restored immediately to the temples that were built for them because it is quite frankly the only place for them!
Other posts about Ancient Greece:
The Acropolis Museum in Athens – an account of my visit to the new Museum in 2009.