Greeks Go for All the Marbles In Effort to Get Back Artifacts

A sculpture thought to be Dionysus or Hercules, one of the Elgin marbles at the British Museum.
A sculpture thought to be Dionysus or Hercules, one of the Elgin marbles at the British Museum. (The British Museum)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

ATHENS -- On Saturday, huge cranes will begin lifting ancient statues, carvings and architectural fragments off the Acropolis, down to a new museum built at the base of the most famous citadel in the world. For the vast majority of these stone remnants of the great age of Athens, it will be the first time they have ever left this rocky summit.

Even as the forces of history washed over this city for millennia, making and unmaking it according to the dictates of three major religions and at least a half-dozen empires, these stone gods and heroes, which once decorated its temples and public spaces, have remained close to their original home. That makes them the lucky ones.

The new museum, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi, has proved controversial from the start. The old Acropolis museum, a low and ugly space built next to the Parthenon, has long been deemed inadequate. Three earlier efforts to build a new museum, in 1976, 1979 and 1989, failed after becoming mired in legal, archaeological and political conflicts. The current museum, which required the expropriation of 25 buildings, has been in the works since 1997, and again legal difficulties delayed it -- so much so that the plan to open in time for the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics is now ancient history.

But Dimitrios Pandermalis, the president of the museum project, says the first visitors will be allowed in early next year, and the museum will have a grand opening sometime in early 2009. At which point, perhaps, arguments about the building will give way to the building's basic argument. Which is simple: Greece wants the marble sculptures that the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, chiseled off the Parthenon more than 200 years ago. From the ground up, the building is designed to emphasize the Greek claim that the "Elgin marbles" should be returned to Athens, to join together in one place as much of the surviving Parthenon statuary as can be assembled.

Architecture has been used to establish civic identity since at least the time of the Parthenon. But Tschumi's new museum is an attempt to use architecture to shift the terms of a debate about who should possess one of the world's most cherished collection of antiquities. Whether it is an Egyptian artifact looted from a grave during the swashbuckling days of early 20th-century archaeology, or antiquities from Peru sitting in an Ivy League museum, or a Native American object that still has sacred power within a living cultural tradition, there is increasing pressure on established museums to consider the return of art that, in many cases, has helped define them as institutions for decades.

Rarely can the problem be solved easily through legal remedies. Very often the pressure for repatriation is diplomatic, or part of a not-so-subtle public relations campaign. The longer an object sits in one place, however, the more likely it is to become part of a new, and perhaps equally meaningful cultural context.

For many people, a visit to the British Museum means a visit to the Elgin marbles -- and to remove them from London would be to sever one kind of emotional bond in favor of another. And in relatively new countries, such as the United States, the repatriation of art would mean the dissolution of powerful markers of Western and European-derived identity, even if those markers were secured with the fortunes of robber barons or by outright appropriation and even theft.

Tschumi's museum, an austere building, is designed to cut through the complexity of arguments about purloined art and make a direct emotional appeal. It is a large object wedged into a crowded old neighborhood. The entire museum is centered on a concrete core, the same length and width as the core of the Parthenon. On the lowest level of the museum, there are pillars over ruins. On the next two levels there are trapezoid-shaped shaped floors with gallery spaces built around the concrete core. But on the top, the concrete core emerges with a glass box around it, echoing the temple's shape on the hill above. From here, visitors will be able to look up to the Parthenon, with which the new, glass-walled Parthenon Gallery is exactly aligned.

In the Parthenon Gallery, the concrete box becomes a stand-in for the temple itself. Visitors will see the Parthenon frieze running around it, like a belt of marble, illuminated by light flowing through the glass walls. Fragments of the Parthenon's elaborate pediment sculptures, which once sat inside the triangular roof spaces at both ends of the temple, will be placed at the east and west ends of the new gallery, arrayed just as they were 2,500 years ago.

The Elgin marbles, which represent roughly 60 percent of the surviving sculpture that was originally on the Parthenon, will be represented by plaster casts made from the originals now in the British Museum. These casts will be covered by wire mesh veils, to partially obscure them. The idea, according to Pandermalis, is to allow visitors to see the marbles in their original narrative sequence.

"The concept was to restore the continuity of the narrative," says Tschumi, a Swiss-born architect, speaking by telephone from his New York office. And with the veils, which emphasize the absence of the marbles that are in London, the gallery raises a larger question: "Would the building, and the display, be convincing enough so that there would be -- how can I describe it? -- a desire to get those marbles back, on the part of the British?"

Not according to the British.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company