x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bringing it all back?

The New Acropolis Museum in Athens is an eloquent and elegant call for the return of Greece's most famous - and most controversial treasures.

Fourth century artefacts returned by the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu on display in the New Acropolis Museum's temporary exhibition hall in 2008.
Fourth century artefacts returned by the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu on display in the New Acropolis Museum's temporary exhibition hall in 2008.

The message is clear. The publicity may well be about the daring architecture designed to house 4,000 artefacts from Greece's glorious past but the opening of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens next month is about the Elgin Marbles. It's about the long, unrelenting campaign by Greece to have them returned by the British Museum. Stand in the top floor of the new building, a glass-fronted lozenge skewed out of kilter with the exhibition space below and the visitor stands face to face with the Parthenon 300 metres away. In its vast hall will be a frieze which once graced the Acropolis, built in 479BC, a symbol of Athens at the zenith of its powers. About half of the carvings are in the mellow tones of weathered marble which have survived in Athens and the others - copies of those in London - are in casts of glaring white. In the British Museum the frieze looks inward from its gallery walls. In Athens it looks out at the visitors and over their shoulder to the Acropolis. The display says: the Marbles belong here. In this museum. In Athens.

Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, the president of the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum recognises that demands for the Marbles to be returned will increase with the new museum. He told the BBC: "The pressure is very natural though we did not do anything to add to the pressure. But it is clear to the visitors when they see the frieze that there is one piece here which is the original but the next piece is in London; the next piece in Athens; the next in London. Some pieces are in half with a piece in Greece and the other half in London. It is a problem."

It has been a problem since the years between 1801 to 1810 when Lord Thomas Elgin, the British Ambassador to Constantinople, was given permission by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, whose territory included Athens, to remove the Marbles from the Parthenon. Elgin and the British maintained that they were taken legally. Many claim they were looted. The poet Byron, who knew Elgin, compared him to the barbarians of the past in his poem The Curse of Minerva, with the goddess declaiming ? "'Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth, Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both."

His haul, which he sold to the British Museum in 1816, includes 17 statues, 15 of 92 original panels depicting scenes of heroism as well as more than half of the frieze's 159 metres which once decorated the inside of the temple. That is about half of the remains. Elgin does seem to have been driven by an altruistic passion to enlighten British art lovers about the glories of Greek antiquity but today the supporters of the Marbles' return, which includes committees in 14 different countries, are preparing to launch another attack on "Elginism" - as they call acts of cultural vandalism.

Spyros Mercouri, the director of the Melina Mercouri Foundation - set up on the death of his sister, an actress and politician - captures the passion the Greeks have for the return of these historic carvings. He says: "We only care about this one treasure: the Parthenon temple, the birthplace of democracy - our soul... When my sister, who was Minister for Culture visited London in 1983 she met the director of the British Museum who asked her, 'Where would you keep the Marbles?'

"She said: 'We will build a new Acropolis museum. It will have all the technological means to keep them safe. We will keep them there.' That's why we have left the room with the copies so that visitors can understand." Marlen Taffarello of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles says: "Since the first request in 1833 for their return there has always been the feeling that this fragmented treasure should be reunited. It is unique. It is part of the Acropolis, a building with a story which ought to be told where it is meant to be, as a whole, instead of being divided. If the Bayeux Tapestry had been cut up and strewn around, we in the UK would say that it should be brought together. You wouldn't let the Mona Lisa be torn apart? The people who visit the museum do not want to see a fragment. Maybe now with the new museum they will see that it is ethically correct to reunite the Marbles."

While the New Acropolis Museum itself refuses to give interviews, the British Museum is bracing itself for a reaction from the public and press. The British Museum's spokes-woman, Hannah Boulton, says: "We will see what the response is and what the press says. We always get on well with our Greek colleagues and we always want to listen to public opinion but it will not change our view that the sculptures are part of everyone's shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries. We do understand that people are passionate and full of emotion, we are not blind to that, but we, too, are passionate about what we are trying to achieve. We love the Marbles, too.

"We are talking about sculptures in the New Acropolis which have come only from the Parthenon but what we do here is put them into context by placing them alongside artefacts and other materials from Egypt, Oceania, Asia? You can see the influences of their cultures here which you cannot see in Athens." The British Museum's argument is that since it was established in 1753 for all "studious and curious persons... native and foreign" it has existed to tell the story of human cultural achievement from two million years ago to the present day. Its director Neil MacGregor argues that it is a unique resource for the world and allows the public to explore the complex network of interconnected cultures. The museum is quick to point out that its six million visitors pay nothing to enter. The New Acropolis Museum will charge, though fees have yet to be announced.

"The British Museum has not argued that there was nowhere for the sculptures to be seen in Athens," says Boulton. "I'm not sure where this argument has come from. We warmly welcome the New Acropolis Museum but it does not change our view that it is important for the sculptures in the British Museum's collection to remain in London, where they can be seen and appreciated as part of a collection. If you accept the concept of a world collection, that nullifies the argument for restitution. We are trying to discover what connects us as humans, what is the universality of culture, not defined by national identity but belonging to the world."

This view is backed by James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, who argues that nations are invoking cultural property laws more for political reasons than to preserve or share ancient works with the rest of the world. "No one owns antiquities," he says "It's better to believe that they belong to all of us." Cuno, who wrote Who Owns Antiquity?, says that the British Museum has a rightful claim to the Elgin Marbles and that offering them to the public as part of an encyclopaedic view of man's cultural development is legitimate as "evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."

It is an argument that, to many countries, smacks of a sort of post-colonial finders-keepers. The Iraq archaeological department demanded as long ago as 2002 that artefacts such as the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, removed by German archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century and taken to Berlin, should be returned. The Metropolitan Museum of New York "acquired" the Lydian Hoard in 1967 after it had been stolen from a site in Turkey but only returned the treasures after a court case in 1993. Only this month, 70 artefacts from the fifth century that had been stolen from Greece were returned by Germany, Belgium and Britain.

"A new wind is blowing," Mihalis Liapis, the former Hellenic Minister of Culture told an international conference organised by Unesco on the return of antiquities in January. "More and more museums are adopting tighter ethics codes and governments are promoting bilateral and international cooperation." Almost overlooked in the heightened controversy, which will continue long after the opening on June 20, is the New Acropolis Museum itself. Designed by Bernard Tschumi of New York, it is a triumph of glass and steel, with 150,000 square feet of exhibition space - 10 times more than the previous Acropolis Museum. Its angular lines contrast sharply with the buildings around and the great columns of the Acropolis above. During construction, archaeologists discovered an ancient city and integrated it into the design by building over its 3,994 square metres of remains with a glass-floored atrium to allow views into the floors below.

Taffarello, who visited the museum recently, says: "It is awesome. It is minimalist and very cleverly lets the artefacts take centre stage in uncluttered settings. The lighting is extraordinary. We were there in February when it was raining and from the inside the Parthenon looked mystical and wonderful."