The opening of the New Acropolis Museum was one of the most emotional experiences of my life” says Tina Daskalantonakis, a Greek hotelier. “It is more than a museum – it is a symbol of national pride and hope for the future.”
The museum in question crouches 300 metres below the Acropolis. An angular behemoth of glass, steel, concrete and marble housing some 4,000 artefacts, it is the culmination of an idea first mooted by Konstantinos Karamanlis’s Conservative government in 1976 and, since the early 1980s, passionately advocated by the Socialist minister of culture Melina Mercouri: the creation of a home in which the Parthenon Marbles can be reunited and displayed to the world.
After 140 court cases relating to archaeological finds during construction, and the destruction of neighbouring neoclassical buildings to clear sightlines to the Acropolis, the new museum has opened to international fanfare, five years behind schedule. And while arguments rumble on, Daskalantonakis’s sentiment is widely shared by Greeks.
The return of the Elgin Marbles, displayed in the British Museum, remains the one issue that rallies Greeks of every political spectrum. By the time Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, arrived in Athens in the early 19th century, the Parthenon had already suffered the ravages of time and war.
Using his influence as Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Elgin acquired permission to remove “some stones with inscriptions and figures”. On his instructions, in 1801, sculptures and friezes that Phidias had designed in honour of the goddess Athena 25 centuries earlier were sawn off the Parthenon and about half the remaining marbles shipped to Britain. The motives and legality of Elgin’s actions have been the subject of heated debate since 1816 when, now bankrupt, Elgin offered the marbles to the British Government for £35,000.
While Greek culture minister Antonis Samaras speaks of “crime” and “plunder”, Professor Dimitris Pantermalis, president of the board of directors of the Acropolis Museum, who has been involved with the project since inception, is more circumspect. “It is not even a question of legality,” he declares. “The unity of the marbles is a matter of culture and ethics. ”
The design, by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, is itself an allegory of unification: that between art, rituals and everyday life and, in the words of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, “linking antiquity with the modern world of technology”.
It accommodates views of ongoing excavations of an ancient urban settlement beneath glass floors gently ramped to reflect the ascent to the sacred hill of the Acropolis. The sloping ground floor displays everyday objects, mostly pottery, found on the hillside.
On the first floor, amid a forest concrete pillars, marble statues from archaic to Roman times stand proud, some still bearing traces of original colour, while glass walls and floors suffuse the interior with natural light, dancing in dynamic dialogue with the sculptures.
For the first time, five of the six caryatids that supported the Erechtheion, one of the most familiar monuments on the Acropolis, can be seen in the round, a perfect offering to the gods.
The tour de force, however, and the focus of renewed debate about the Marbles, is the top-floor Parthenon Gallery. Turned through a 23-degree angle from the building to align perfectly with the Parthenon, visible through the glass walls, the gallery recreates the east-west orientation and dimensions of this Temple to Athena.
With sculpture fragments from the pediments at either end, brushed-steel pillars, at the exact distance of the originals, frame some of the high-relief sculptures that used to decorate the outside of the temple. Visitors may walk through the columns to view the famous low-relief frieze, at eye level on an inner wall representing the temple’s inner sanctum.
Displaying the frieze – a 160m continuous narrative poem in stone – presented special problems. “About 75m of the frieze is in London. And several blocks contain mutilated figures whose heads and torsos are divided between Athens and London,” explains Pantermalis. “How do you make contextual sense of that absence? To leave the missing areas blank would be too shocking.”
The favoured solution of covering copies in scrims created technical difficulties, as the netting would not permit a close fit with the originals. Instead, Pantermalis sanctioned the use of plaster copies to fill the gap left by the British Museum’s collection.
“The originals are immediately identifiable, both from the striking difference in quality and from the colour,” explains Pantermalis. The copies are white – as are the originals in London, irrevocably damaged by scrubbing in the 1930s – whereas the Athens marbles, laser-cleaned 60 years later, retain the amber hue from the iron content of Pentelic marble. Lost panels have been left blank. “There is no need for propaganda,” states Pantermalis “The Parthenon marbles make their own case for reunification.”
The cornerstones of the British Museum’s argument against returning the Elgin Marbles were those of greater public access and the lack of a suitable home for the sculptures in Athens. The British Museum undoubtedly saved them from pilfering and atmospheric erosion, but how does the creation of the New Acropolis Museum affect the British argument?
“Our stance has always been that our collection should remain intact, so that the public can view the Elgin Marbles in the context of art from other great cultures,” says Hannah Boulton for the British Museum. It is the view echoed by Bonnie Greer, deputy head of the board of trustees, and the UK’s most senior representative at the opening in Athens. “I believe more strongly than ever that the marbles should remain in London,” she argued, “to be displayed in an international cultural context.”
Italians, Germans, Swedes and the Vatican have already returned missing fragments. The Greeks say they seek the return of no other treasures, only, in the words of Professor Pantermalis, of “this unique work of global significance, whose meaning lies in its totality”.
During the opening ceremony, Antonis Samaras inserted the marble head of Iris, whose body was removed to London, into a plaster panel of the frieze. It was a symbolic gesture. Goddess of rainbows, emotions and travel, and messenger of the gods, she embodies their message of hope.