Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Elgin's Marbles" and the New Acropolis Museum

Most people studying antiquity know (and all should know) about how the Brit Lord Elgin, as an agent of the Ottoman Empire, brought back (or stole) the marbles from the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis to England. This has led to an ongoing controversy about whether to return the marbles to Greece or to keep them in England. Are they the property of Greece, of England, or all of us? I personally favor Greece mixed with all of us. The primary argument used to keep them in England--that Greece did not have the facilities to keep the marbles preserved and intact and that if left there they would have suffered from the elements--has been significantly weakened with the building of a very expensive new Acropolis Museum in Greece.

From the NYTimes:

June 24, 2009
Elgin Marble Argument in a New Light

ATHENS — Not long before the new Acropolis Museum opened last weekend, the writer Christopher Hitchens hailed in this newspaper what he called the death of an argument.

Britain used to say that Athens had no adequate place to put the Elgin Marbles, the more than half of the Parthenon frieze that Lord Elgin spirited off when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago. Since 1816 they have been prizes of the British Museum. Meanwhile, Greeks had to make do with the leftovers, housed in a ramshackle museum built in 1874.

So the new museum that Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss-born architect, has devised near the base of the Acropolis is a $200 million, 226,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art rebuttal to Britain’s argument.

From certain angles it has all the charm and discretion of the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan. Neighbors have been complaining all the way to the bank, housing values having shot up because of it.

Inside, however, it is light and airy, and the collection is a miracle. Weathered originals from the Parthenon frieze, the ones Elgin left behind, are combined with plaster casts of what’s in London to fill the sun-drenched top floor of the museum, angled to mirror the Parthenon, which gleams through wraparound windows. The clash between originals and copies makes a not-subtle pitch for the return of the marbles. Greece’s culture minister, Antonis Samaras, on the occasion of the opening last week, said what Greek officials have been saying for decades: that the frieze, broken up, is like a family portrait with “loved ones missing.” Mr. Samaras’s boss, Greece’s president, Karolos Papoulias, spoke less metaphorically: “It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.”


As to whether Elgin had legal authority to remove the marbles, the Ottomans being the ruling power, as the British maintain, Mr. Pandermalis paused. “The problem is not legal,” he decided. “It’s ethical and cultural.” George Voulgarakis, a former culture minister, wasn’t so circumspect when asked the same question. He said, “It’s like saying the Nazis were justified in plundering priceless works of art during the Second World War.”

“I understand what museums fear,” Mr. Voulgarakis added. “They think everything will have to go back if the marbles do. But the Acropolis is special.”

That’s what the Greeks have insisted for years when arguing why the frieze belongs to Greece, but they also say the frieze belongs to the world when pointing out why it doesn’t belong to the British. The frieze in fact belonged to the Parthenon, a building here and nowhere else, the best argument for repatriation, except the idea now is not to reattach the marbles where they came from but to move them from one museum to another, from the British Museum to the new Acropolis Museum, albeit next door — a different matter, if not to the Greeks.


For their part, the British also point out that the marbles’ presence in London across two centuries now has its own perch on history, having influenced neo-Classicism and Philhellenism around the globe. That’s true, and it’s not incidental that the best editions of ancient Greek texts are published by British, French, Americans and Germans, not Greeks. But imperialism isn’t an endearing argument.


Elsewhere, museums have begun collaborating, pooling resources, bending old rules. The British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and other great public collectors of antiquity have good reason to fear a slippery slope if the marbles ever do go back, never mind what the Greeks say.

At the same time the Acropolis Museum plays straight to the heart, sailing past ownership issues into the foggy ether of a different kind of truth. It’s the nobler, easier route.

Looting antiquities obviously can’t be tolerated. Elgin operated centuries ago in a different climate. The whole conversation needs to be reframed. As Mr. Dimou asked, “If they were returned, would Greeks be wiser, better? Other objects of incredible importance are scattered around Greece and no one visits them.” Mr. Liakos put it another way: “It’s very Greek to ask the question. Who owns history? It’s part of our nationalist argument. The Acropolis is our trademark. But the energy spent on antiquity drains from modern creativity.”

Maybe we should put all the antiquities uncovered in Britain from the Roman period in Rome, place the crown jewels permanently in Paris? It is the same thing from the other direction. Museums, while fascinating and often attended by myself and convenient collections of artifacts from all around the world, are holdovers from modern imperialism and remain imperialist enterprises. Perhaps a new system of "borrowing" would soften this aspect, however. It is strange to have only part of the friezes in one place and the rest in another--keep them with the building itself. What to do with the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre, I don't know?

By the way, here is the latest piece I have seen in the London Times.

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