Britain used to say Athens had no adequate place to put the Elgin Marbles, the more-than-half of the Parthenon frieze that British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Lord Elgin spirited off two centuries ago. Since 1816, they have been prizes of the British Museum, while the Greeks made do with the leftovers, housed in a ramshackle museum built in 1874.
Olympian enterprise: A view of the top floor of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, with the ancient Parthenon temple seen in the background. Greek authorities have said admission will be €1, the price of a bus ticket, till the end of the year. In 2010, the charge will be €5.
The new museum Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi has devised near the base of the Acropolis is a $200 million (around Rs978 crore), 226,000 sq. ft, state-of-the-art rebuttal to Britain’s argument.
Inside the museum, 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 beyond, which gleams through wrap-around windows. The clash between originals and copies makes a not-subtle pitch for the return of the marbles.
On the occasion of the opening last month, Greece’s culture minister Antonis Samaras said what Greek officials have been saying for decades: that the frieze, broken up, is like a family portrait with “loved ones missing”. Samaras’ 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.”
This glass-wrapped gallery exhibits bits of the Parthenon to visitors alongside their original home, the Parthenon, visible through the windows.
Don’t bet the British will agree.
Inside the museum, visitors ascend, as if up the slope of the Acropolis, via a glass ramp that reveals, underfoot, ancient remains excavated during the building’s construction (they will eventually be opened to the public.) It’s a nice touch. On the second floor, archaic and early classical statues mill in a big gallery like a crowd in an agora—a curatorial and architectural whimsy that risks visitors missing works such as the Kritios Boy. which is nearly hidden to one side.
As for the caryatids from the Erechtheion and the sculptural remains of the Temple of Athena Nike, including the sexy Sandal Binder, works of textbook import, they look a bit stranded on a balcony and in a passageway because the museum, save for the Parthenon floor, doesn’t have regular spaces. Free circulation puts everything on an equal footing (this is the birthplace of democracy, after all), but the flip side of this layout is the failure to make priorities clear, which art museums exist to do.
The original pieces of the Parthenon that survive in the gallery are supplemented by displays of paler plaster casts of the missing pieces at the British Museum (and a few others), drawing attention to the lost pieces.
That said, Athens needs new modern landmarks. It is choked by slapdash buildings thrown up after the junta fell during the early 1970s. Public monuments ape ancient palaces—badly. Nikos Dimou, a prominent Greek writer, recalled that when a show of British modern sculptor Henry Moore arrived years ago, “People complained about bringing monstrous forms to the land of beauty. Ninety per cent of cultured Greeks, even today, live with this classical sensibility.”
Visitors throng the new gallery, greeted by the caryatid figures in the upper gallery, arranged in a phalanx with a gap where a missing sister, now on display at the British Museum, would have stood.
Nationalism vs imperialism?
A generation or two of well-travelled, environmentally conscious, globally wired Greeks has since come of age, and the Elgin Marbles debate now represents a kind of luxury that Greece has earned. It began with actor Melina Mercouri during the 1980s, her publicity campaign coinciding with the rise of a populist leader, Andreas Papandreou, whose slogan was “Greece for the Greeks”. It has evolved into a less glamorous tangle of diplomatic and legal manoeuvring, with Greece lately recovering some 25 antiquities from various countries, including some additional stray fragments from the Parthenon. “This issue unifies us,” Dimitris Pandermalis, director of the Acropolis Museum, says. Never mind that surveys show how few of the Greeks actually bother to visit the Acropolis past grade school.
For their part, the British point out that the marbles’ presence in London across two centuries now has its own perch in 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 the British, French, Americans and Germans, not Greeks.
But imperialism isn’t an endearing argument. Both sides, in different ways, stand on shaky ground. Ownership remains the main stumbling block. When Britain offered a three-month loan of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum on condition that Greece recognizes Britain’s ownership, Samaras swiftly countered that Britain could borrow any masterpiece it wished from Greece if it relinquished ownership of the frieze. But a loan was out.
The argument is far from over
Pity. Asked whether the two sides might ever negotiate a way to share the marbles, Samaras shook his head. “No Greek can sign up for that,” he said.
Elsewhere, museums have begun collaborating, pooling resources and 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 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.” 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.”
The new museum finally casts Melina Mercouri’s old argument in concrete. The opportunity is there.
©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
In ‘Influential Country Styles’ , author Judith Miller takes a global tour of contemporary country homes. Some ideas to adapt:
• Weathered or unfinished wood can give a new home a lived-in look. Don’t be afraid to mix dark- and light-coloured wood.
• Blend old and new—brushed steel sink and marble countertop.
• Wooden beams introduce a rustic charm. They don’t have to support the structure of your home and can be purely cosmetic.
• Use local stone to unite a home and its surroundings.
• Place different chairs around the dining table, but paint them the same colour. A distressed finish is a nice touch too.
©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
‘One and Other’
Scott Illman, a 34-year-old bar owner, sat on the Fourth Plinth as he participated in British sculptor Antony Gormley’s work ‘One and Other’ in Trafalgar Square, central London, on 6 July. ‘One and Other’ is conceived as a portrait of Britain in 2009, and will run for 100 days as part of the rolling programme of contemporary art commissions for the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Every hour, 24 hours a day, for 100 days, a different person will take their place on the plinth as part of a continuous monument in time. The project has been commissioned by the mayor of London.
Art- istic placement
Interior designer Heather Hilliard is an art history major who worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She later completed her master’s degree in interior architecture and design at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, and worked with renowned designers. “I find that most people do not know how to hang and present art in their own homes,” she says. “I cringe when I walk into a lovely home but find art that is not the right proportion for the space or find it hanging way too high. Homeowners should not hang one small framed piece on a large wall. If you want to hang small works, it is best to group them grid-like and hang them approximately one inch apart. Hang the centre of a large work or grouping at least 5ft 6 inches high, approximate(ly) eye level.”
©2009/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
Be an environmental guardian
US researchers have proposed a new strategy to tackle the global climate dilemma: Target the biggest polluters, who tend to be the wealthiest individuals. Under the framework, a universal cap (rather than different caps for different countries) would be placed on carbon emissions, and countries tasked with getting individuals living beyond that cap to reduce their carbon footprint. “Most of the world’s emissions come disproportionately from the wealthy citizens of the world, irrespective of their nationality,” says lead author Shoibal Chakravarty, a research scholar at the Princeton Environmental Institute.
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