Friday, 18 September 2009

Acropolis Museum & Lord Elgin

After four years of visiting Athens on the way to a Greek island-hopping holiday I have finally managed to see the new Acropolis Museum. It was originally planned to be completed in 2004 to accompany the return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual home but construction setbacks and various outbreaks of controversy along the way have meant that it did not finally open until June 2009.

I purchased tickets on line for just €1 (prices will rise to €5 in 2010, so if you want a bargain go soon) and arrived at my alloted time of ten o’clock. I had feared that the place would be crowded and uncomfortable but this was not the case at all and without the lines of visitors that I had anticipated it was easy to cruise past the ticket desks and into the museum. I had a gigantic sense of anticipation because I have visited the old inadequate museum at the top of the Acropolis a couple of times before in 2000 and 2006 and I have been genuinely looking forward to seeing this magnificent replacement. I have to say that anticipation was mixed with trepidation because having followed the saga of the open wound debate about the Elgin Marbles (Parthenon Sculptures) I genuinely wondered how I was going to feel.

The long-awaited €130m Acropolis Museum is a modern glass and concrete building at the foot of the ancient Acropolis and home to sculptures from the golden age of Athenian democracy. Unlike any other museum in the world this one has been designed to exhibit something it doesn’t own and the Greek Culture minister has said that he hopes that it will be the catalyst for the return of the disputed Marbles from the British Museum in London because about half of the sculptures have been there since they were dubiously sold to the museum in 1817. The gloves are now off and the battle is now on between this, the new state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum, and the British Museum for the right to permanently exhibit them.

Outside the museum and also in the cavernous entrance hall there are glass floors with views of the excavations that were discovered during the construction of the building and contributed to the delays and then there is a steady incline through seven centuries of history and impressive well set out displays along a generously wide gallery that provides sufficient space for everyone to stop and enjoy the exhibits without feeling hurried or under pressure to move on. Moving on to the second floor there are two galleries that I have to say I did not find so well set out and involved a rambling walk through a succession of exhibits that was not helped by the absence of a simple floor plan guide to help guide the visitor through and having finished with the second floor I then had to double back to get to the third and the Parthenon Gallery having avoided the inevitable over priced café terrace and shop on the way.

After an hour passing through centuries of ancient Greece I finally arrived at the top floor Gallery, which is designed to eventually hold and display all of the Parthenon sculptures but for the time being has only about 50% of the originals and the rest are plaster casts made from (and controversially paid for) of the remaining treasures temporarily remaining in London. It is truly impressive and with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon looming up outside I can only explain it rather inadequately as a memorable experience. The top floor is designed to provide a full 360º panoramic of the building and how the sculptures would have looked when they were originally commissioned and sculptured in the fifth century BC.

Today, the Greek Government, and most of the Greek people, would rather like the sculptures back but have recently turned down a British Museum offer to give the Marbles to the Acropolis Museum on a loan basis for just three months. The Culture Minister Antonis Samonis explained that “The government, as any other Greek government would have done in its place, is obliged to turn down the offer. This is because accepting it would legalise the snatching of the Marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago,”. On the whole I am inclined to agree with this and believe that the place for the sculptures are in Athens and not London but this is a complicated debate that cannot be rushed and a few more years sorting it out is hardly going to matter.

I really liked the Museum but what I didn’t like especially was the demonising of Lord Elgin and the unnecessary nationalist, provocative and belligerent anti-English sentiment attached to the explanations and the video commentary because I consider that offensive as an English visitor and it made me feel slightly uncomfortable and unwelcome. The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the USA who were encouraged to gasp in awe that an Englishmen could have done such terrible things. I know that a lot of what should be in Athens is in London but let’s not forget that there is also bits of it in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the National Museum, Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the University Museum, Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich all of which seems to have been conveniently ignored.

There are many factors to take into consideration. We do not know if Elgin's actions were legal at the time but he had certainly obtained from the Turkish authorities, then in control of Athens, permission to work on the Acropolis and it seems that he had a genuine interest in archaeology and the preservation of the past. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that when Elgin removed the sculpture from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state indeed and this is expediently omitted from the commentary and the otherwise excellent interpretation. From the fifth century BC to the seventeenth century AD, it had been in continuous use. It was built as a Greek temple, was later converted into a Christian church, and finally, with the coming of Turkish rule over Greece in the fifteenth century, it was converted into a mosque.

Although we think of it primarily as a pagan temple, its history as church and mosque was an even longer one, and no less distinguished. It was, as one British traveller put it in the mid seventeenth century, 'the finest mosque in the world' but all that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks, a Venetian cannonball hit the building, which was inappropriately being used as a temporary a gunpowder store and approximately three hundred women and children were amongst those killed, and the building itself was devastated. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins.

Elgin might be the bad guy in the eyes of the Greeks but what the Acropolis museum conveniently fails to mention is that at the time he removed the sculptures the local population was using it as a convenient quarry and a great deal of the original sculptures and the basic building blocks of the temple itself, were being reused for new local housing or simply being ground down for mortar. Whatever Elgin's motives for removing the sculptures there is no doubt at all that he saved them from possible even worse damage and without his intervention we might not be even having the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate at all. I would urge visitors to think about that especially the indignant American who I overheard saying that he planned to write to the British Government with his ill informed opinions! It is important to put things into historical context. Two hundred years ago there was no UNESCO and this wasn’t like turning up in Washington DC and removing the Lincoln Memorial and just carting it away because two hundred years ago very few people actually gave a damn!

Yes the sculptures should be returned to Athens but let’s please acknowledge Elgin’s important role in having saved these precious artefacts for posterity and for the World. The man was not a villain!

1 comment:

DL said...

You missed out on the Acropolis Museum Cafe - it is fabulous, and very reasonably priced. And what a view while you sip a glass of wine with a lovely sandwich crafted from greek delicacies, all named and sourced.