20 June 2009

New Acropolis Museum Opens in Athens

I lift high a glass of ouzo to this gorgeous new museum.

Many years in the works, the 130-million euro ($ 180-million) glass and steel museum was designed by architect Bernard Tschumi to offer amazing views of the surrounding hills and the Acropolis high above.

The entire building is raised on huge concrete columns, which allows the museum's entry plaza and first floor to hover over an open excavation site below. Wide expanses of glass were cut into the floors so visitors, as they move about, can look down into the archaeological ruins discovered during the construction process.

The building also pays homage to the Acropolis by placing remnants of the much-treasured Parthenon Marbles at the centre of the museum.

Take a little time to visit the museum's new website with stunning views and close-ups of masterpieces, and then spend a few moments looking at some of the collections -- from the Acropolis slopes to the Parthenon: click on images and get a mini-essay as well.

And, if your idea of fun is hearing politicians telling each other how culturally astute they are, you can watch the video of the live opening ceremony right here. You will see lots of familiar and semi-familiar Eurocrat faces (for those of us in the EU), a clutch of overdressed wives -- it is a museum, for heaven's sake -- some church-ocrats in full regalia and a scattering of bigwigs.

But no neo-pagans.*

And almost no Brits.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sent their regrets, as did Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Ben Bradshaw, the new secretary for culture and sport, and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

As art slugs it out with politics

The centrepiece of the museum is the frieze that once adorned the Parthenon and was carved by Phidias in the 5th century BC. The problem is that about half the surviving sculptures are in the British Museum in London.

Not unexpectedly, Greece used the inauguration of the Acropolis museum for another attack on Britain for failing to return the marbles.

The culture minister did not mince words:

“For 200 years the Parthenon marbles have been amputated,” said Antonis Samaras.

"We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts. We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in fifth-century [BC] Athens because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometres away."

“Now they must be reunited. The Parthenon frieze speaks through its totality. The new museum is creating a huge momentum. We are winning the fight.”

Well, maybe.

Elgin and Ottomans in one corner, Greece in the other

The Elgin Marbles have been a source of dispute between Greece and Britain almost since the day in 1799 when Lord Elgin began hacking out 75 metres of the 160 metres of sculptures that ran around the Parthenon's inner core. He sailed away with them to Britain in 1806 (with the permission, it must be said, of the Ottoman authorities who then controlled Greece). When his lordship was almost bankrupt, he sold the marbles to the British Museum in 1817 for a whacking £35,000 ($72,000).

The return of the Elgin marbles to Athens has been an issue of national pride in Greece, and successive governments have waged high-profile campaigns for their return.

The legality of the removal is really a moot point, as debate rages as to whether the marbles should remain in London or be returned to Athens.

Acid Rain and Sour Tempers

British authorities maintain that, after two centuries, the Classical sculptures legally belong to the British Museum and insist that they will never be returned -- not least, as they rightly argued, because Greece was unable to guarantee the preservation of the antiquities. Pollution and acid rain were eating into the sculptures that remained on the Acropolis -- many now damaged beyond recognition -- so it would be criminal to send the priceless marbles back to Athens.

That argument, at least, is gone. The new Acropolis museum has a special gallery for the Parthenon marbles on its third floor. The glass hall displays the section of the Parthenon frieze that Elgin left behind next to plaster casts of the works in London.

The copies are stark white plaster, in contrast with the brownish weathered marble of the originals.

Greek authorities believe that the new museum provides Britain with the perfect opportunity to right an historical wrong - and to atone for the colonial imperial legacy of the British Empire.

At the opening ceremony, Greek President Karolos Papoulias renewed the call for the missing works. "The whole world can now see the most important sculptures from the Parthenon together," he said.

"But some are missing. It is time to heal the wounds on the monument by returning the marbles that belong to it."

Not so fast

In The Guardian newspaper this week, a spokesman from Britain's department of culture, media and sport stressed that the opening of the new museum would make no difference to the government's attitude.

"Neither the trustees nor the British government believe they should be returned," he said. "They are available free of charge in a museum that has more visitors than any other in the world; they are looked after in perfect environmental conditions; and above all they are presented in a world context and seen alongside comparative civilizations."

Pro, Con, and Maybe

Volker Kaestner from the Collection of Classical Antiquities in Berlin thinks the issue isn't black and white.**

"As an archeologist, I do believe that this collection belongs together," he maintains. "But on the other hand, there have been legal decisions made about the Elgin Marbles and where they belong that justify their remaining in the British Museum. They have become part of the British cultural landscape, and their removal by Lord Elgin has become part of their history."

He said the issue is primarily a moral one, but with potentially rocky ramifications. "Were the Elgin marbles to be returned to Greece, this would set a precedent which would throw the doors wide open in an unreasonable way," he argues. "We can't expect to see all Rembrandt's work returned to Amsterdam, can we?"

And why ever not?

The Dutch should get started right away. After all, the first architectural competition to design the New Acropolis Museum was held in 1976. If my beloved Netherlanders work at the same speed as the Greeks, the New Rembrandt Museum (with all the world's Rembrandts) will open in Amsterdam in 2042.

I just hope I'm alive to see it!

* See our previous neo-pagan post, Zeus Rains on Pagan Protest.

** Good discussion and analysis in Deutsche Welle

Updated 21 June 2009

Great Slide Show at The New York Times Website, and a Sparkling new video from CelebrateGreece.com on YouTube


  1. I'm not sure who to side with when it comes to the marbles, but I will say the museum looks really interesting and I hope to visit some day!

  2. John Younger, Professor of Classics at the Univ. of Kansas, has posted lots of photographs of the New Acropolis Museum on his website. Stunning stuff.


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