‘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
After four years of visiting Athens on the way to a Greek island-hopping holiday I finally managed to see the new Acropolis Museum in September 2009. It was originally planned to be completed in 2004 to accompany the return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual Athenian home but construction setbacks and various outbreaks of controversy along the way have meant that it did not finally open to the expectant public until June 2009.
I purchased tickets on line a week or so before for just €1 (prices rose to €5 in 2010, so it was a bargain) and arrived at my allotted time of ten o’clock. I had feared that the place would be crowded and uncomfortable but this was not the case at all and without the lines of visitors that I had anticipated it was easy to cruise effortlessly past the ticket desks and into the museum.
I had a gigantic sense of anticipation because I have visited the old inadequate museum at the top of the Acropolis a couple of times before in 2000 and 2006 and I have been genuinely looking forward to seeing this magnificent replacement. I have to say that anticipation was mixed with trepidation because having followed the saga of the open wound debate about the Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Sculptures, depending on your point of view) I genuinely wondered how I was going to feel.
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 history. Unlike any other museum in the world this one has been designed to exhibit something it doesn’t own and can’t yet exhibit and the Greek Culture Minister has said that he hopes that it will be the catalyst for the return of the disputed Marbles from the British Museum in London because about half of the sculptures have been there since they were dubiously sold to the museum in 1817. The gloves are now off and 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.
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.
Outside the museum and also in the cavernous entrance hall there are glass floors with sub-level views of the excavations that were discovered during the construction of the building and contributed to the delays and then there is a steady incline through a timeline of seven centuries of history and impressive well set out displays along a generously wide gallery that provides sufficient space for everyone to stop and enjoy the exhibits without feeling hurried or under pressure to rush.
Moving on to the second floor there are two galleries that I have to say I did not find so well set out and involved a rambling walk through a succession of exhibits that was not helped by the absence of a simple floor plan to help guide the visitor through and having finished with the second floor I then had to double back to get to the third and the Parthenon Gallery having avoided the café terrace and the inevitable shop on the way.
After an hour passing through centuries of ancient Greece I finally arrived at the top floor Gallery, which is designed to eventually hold and display all of the Parthenon sculptures but for the time being has only about half of the originals and the rest are plaster casts made from (and controversially paid for) the remaining treasures temporarily remaining in London. It is truly impressive and with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon looming up dramatically outside I can only explain it rather inadequately as a very memorable experience. The top floor is designed to provide a full 360º panoramic of the building and how the sculptures would have looked when they were originally commissioned and sculptured in the fifth century BC.
Today, the Greek Government, and most of the Greek people as well, would rather like the sculptures back but have recently turned down a British Museum offer to give the Marbles to the Acropolis Museum on a loan basis for just three months. The Culture Minister Antonis Samonis explained that “The Government, as any other Greek Government would have done in its place, is obliged to turn down the offer. This is because accepting it would legalise the snatching of the Marbles and the monument’s carving-up two hundred years ago.”
After due consideration I am inclined to agree with this and believe that the place for the sculptures are in Athens and not London but this is a very complex debate for archaeological scholars to resolve that cannot be rushed for the sake of hurt national feelings and a few more years sorting it out is hardly going to matter.
In justification of the non-return policy the British Museum rather provocatively points out that the statues are in fact relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state so modern Greece has no greater legitimate claim to ownership.
This raises an interesting point. What we have to be careful of however is not applying modern political boundaries to the ancient world. The classical Cambridge Scholar, Professor M I Finley points out that “…Neither then, or at any time in the Ancient World was there a nation, a single national territory under one sovereign rule, called Greece (or any synonym for Greece)”. If we accept this then it begins to construct a counter argument against the modern Greek claims. Even if they belong in Athens they have no relevance to modern Greece.
The travel writer Lawrence Durrell considers this argument and although seemingly accepting it comes to the conclusion: “Myself, I think I should have given them back and keep copies in plaster for the British Museum. For us they are a mere possession of great historic interest. For the Greeks they are a symbol, inexplicably bound up with the national struggle as an image of themselves as descendants of foreign tribes”.
I really enjoyed the Museum but what I didn’t like especially was the unbalanced narrative and the demonising of Lord Elgin and the unnecessary provocative and belligerent anti-English sentiment attached to the explanations and the video commentary. I found this to be slightly offensive as an English visitor and it made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, and I am sure that is not what the museum really wants.
The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the USA who were encouraged to gasp in awe that an Englishmen could have done such terrible things. I know that a lot of what should be in Athens is in London but let’s not forget that there is also bits of it in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the National Museum in Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the University Museum, Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich all of which seems to have been conveniently ignored.
Let’s also not forget that there are other Ancient Greek sculptures which have been removed and are exhibited elsewhere – for example the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ which was unearthed by the French Consul to Turkey in 1883 and promptly shipped back to Paris where, regarded as one of the great surviving masterpieces of sculpture from the Hellenistic period, it remains on display at the Louvre. Should this also be returned?
There are many factors to take into consideration. We do not know if Elgin’s actions were legal at the time but he had certainly obtained from the Ottoman authorities, then in control of Athens, permission to work on the Acropolis and it seems that he had a genuine interest in archaeology and the preservation of the past. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that when Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state indeed, all over Athens parts of Ancient Greece was disappearing and this is expediently omitted from the commentary and the otherwise excellent interpretation.
From the fifth century BC to the seventeenth century AD, the Parthenon had been in continuous use. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.
The Acropolis was, as one British traveller put it in the mid seventeenth century, ‘the finest mosque in the world’ but all that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks when a Venetian cannonball hit the building, which was inappropriately being used as a temporary gunpowder store and approximately three hundred women and children were amongst those killed and the building itself was devastated. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins and being systematically dismantled.
Elgin might be the villain in the eyes of Greece but what the Acropolis museum fails to mention is that at the time he removed the sculptures Athenians themselves were using it as a convenient quarry and a great deal of the original sculptures and the basic building blocks of the temple itself, were being reused for new local housing or simply being ground down for mortar. It is all very well getting irritable about it now but whatever Elgin’s motives were for removing the sculptures there is no doubt at all that he saved them from possible even worse damage and without his intervention we might not be even having the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate at all.
It is important to put things into historical context. Two hundred years ago there was no UNESCO (and if there had been Elgin would have been on the Board of Directors) and this wasn’t like turning up in Washington DC and removing the Lincoln Memorial and just carting it away because two hundred years ago very few people actually gave a damn! And it was certainly nothing like the scale of damage inflicted by looters and souvenir hunters by the Americans themselves at Mese Verde in Colorado and I know because I have been there and seen it for myself!
In my opinion the sculptures should be returned to Athens but let’s please acknowledge Elgin’s possible contribution in having saved these precious artefacts for posterity and for the World. A hostile approach may just be counter productive and harden a British commitment to retain the sculptures in London and that won’t be very helpful because that would be the wrong thing to do!