New Acropolis museum-perfect home for Parthenon marbles?
Black-robed Orthodox priests chanted and sprinkled holy water to bless Greece’s new, ultra-modern Acropolis Museum, which opens officially on June 20 with the hope of bringing back the Parthenon marbles from Britain.
What if early Christians tore down statues and temples in a effort to eradicate paganism? The ancient, medieval and modern merged seemlessly during the ceremony held ahead of the formal inauguration.
“Art elevates man,” said the bishop officiating. “I bless all those who worked for this museum.”
The stunning, glass and concrete building at the foot of the Acropolis had almost as turbulent a history as the ancient monument itself. Neighbours fought for years in court to move it away, international design contests were cancelled and finally ruins were found right beneath it, requiring a complete redesign.
“All great projects challenge and scandalise,” said Culture Minister Antonis Samaras. “But it is these projects that mark their era.”
Built specifically to provide proper space for the Parthenon marbles, many of which are now in the British Museum, the new museum’s dark glass shell rises among residential buildings just 400 metres from the Acropolis and offers visitors a direct view of the temple to the goddess Athena – the crowing glory of the Golden Age of Athens, which laid the foundations of Western art and values.
For Greeks, who feel the connection to their ancient ancestors as if they were only a generation apart, this museum is much more than a great cultural building. It is a major weapon in getting back what they feel is an integral part of their identity – the Parthenon marbles, torn from the temple and taken to Britain 200 years ago by Lord Elgin, then ambassador to the Ottoman empire.
“The dialogue with the British Museum is now on a different basis,” museum director Dimitris Pantermalis told reporters on a sneak tour of the top floor – where the Parthenon marbles are displayed, the missing pieces clearly marked.
The late actress and culture minister Melina Mercouri fought hard for years to convince the British Museum to return the art works, to no effect. One of their main arguments was that the “Elgin Marbles” were better off in London, safe from the ravages of Athens pollution, as the Greeks had no place to put them.
The Greek case has changed over the years – from legal claims to the marbles to a moral argument that the monument was vandalised and must be put back together. Nowhere is this more obvious than the top hall of the new museum. White plaster casts of limbs, heads and animals stand next to the honey-coloured originals that Lord Elgin left behind.
“The Greeks have now excelled themselves in creating a place worthy of its breath-taking content,” wrote British author Christopher Hitchens in a New York Times column. “It is impossible to visit Athens and not yearn for the day Britain decides to right an ancient wrong.”
(The famous Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum June 5. Controversy continues over whether Britain should return the invaluable artifacts to their country of origin, Greece. IW)