Henry Sands says Athens’s new museum is missing its Marbles
We have come to understand that missing sections from museum displays of ancient sculpture are the inevitable result of parts breaking off and becoming lost to the world. But at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens we know exactly where to find the stones that would fill those accusatory gaps.
The empty spaces act as a poignant reminder to the viewer that the collection is not complete — and that it will remain incomplete as long as the Elgin Marbles sit in the Duveen Room of the British Museum, their home since 1816. Now that there is a place to show them off, there is new sense of optimism among the Greeks that they may finally be reunited with the Marbles they believe to be rightfully theirs.
It is more than 200 years since Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed sections of the marble frieze. Many believe it to have been one of the greatest acts of vandalism of all time. Could he have imagined what a contentious issue it would be between Greece and Britain two centuries later?
A couple of years ago, the British archaeologist Dorothy King dismissed the Greek government’s call for the return of the marbles: ‘I think they should start looking after what they have. Most of the Parthenon sculpture in Athens isn’t on display and hasn’t been cared for.’
It’s an accusation that is hard to sustain now that the new museum is complete. Situated at the base of the Acropolis, it boasts an exact replica of the Parthenon Gallery, where the remaining marbles are now displayed. Every effort, even down to lighting controls that simulate outside light, has been made to show the marbles as they once were.
It is an impressive sight amid many. No matter how many times I had seen the Athens landscape in university lectures, nothing had prepared me for the real thing. The power and prominence of the Parthenon is unparalleled.
On my first morning in Athens, to avoid the hordes and the heat, I got to the entrance of the Acropolis for its 8 o’clock opening. Arriving then not only meant that the temperature was just about bearable, but also put me three minutes ahead of the first coach-load of tourists. First I had to find my way around two blonde Russian women who had hiked up the remarkably steep path in four-inch stilettos and leopard-print cocktail dresses. They took it in turn to lie on their fronts and pose as the other took photos with a disposable camera. Even the magnificence of the Parthenon could not prevent my becoming mildly distracted.
And how magnificent it is. Despite extensive scaffolding to assist restoration work, you cannot fail to be moved by the power of the place, especially when you recall that contemporary Britons were just about mastering mud huts. A British girl behind said to her boyfriend, ‘I don’t think we’d be able to build this now.’ ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But then again I don’t think the Greeks could either.’
Whether or not prompted by the Olympic Games — some of the facilities for which have already fallen into disuse — Athens has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the last four years. It has culminated in the New Acropolis Museum. From the outside the museum resembles nothing else in Athens or indeed Greece. The building was designed by the Swiss-born deconstructivist architect Bernard Tschumi, and cost more than $175 million. Based around the idea of fragmentation, it incorporates over 14,000 square metres and is formed from three distinctive rectangles built on top of each other and surrounded in dark glass. It is very ‘un-Athenian’, though its modern simplicity works perfectly to focus the viewer’s attention on the exhibits inside.
The museum is the creation of Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, who has been involved in the project since discussions first began 30 years ago. Although the top floor is certainly the most significant aspect of the museum, the first two set the viewer up perfectly for the third floor finale. They boast an extensive collection of archaic and classical sculptures many of which were created by the sculpture masters Phidias and Alkamenos and which would certainly be the centrepiece of most other museums.
When the museum opens later this year, and the rest of the world sees the facilities the Athenians have built, there will be significant pressure on the British Museum to return the Marbles. Now that we can no longer assert that the Greeks don’t know how to look after them, it will be hard to dismiss the thought that the Parthenon Marbles have a far greater impact when viewed at the base of the Acropolis than in the less resonant surroundings of the British Museum.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 30, 2008