New calls for return of Elgin Marbles

 

THE NEW Acropolis Museum, a spectacular, ultra-modern glass-and-concrete building opens to the public today in Athens amid renewed calls for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles to Greece from Britain, reigniting the decades-old controversy between the two countries.

“The Parthenon marbles are the most cherished symbols of our cultural and political heritage, the height of our achievement as a people,” said Antonis Samaras, Greek minister of culture at the opening ceremony. “The abduction of these sculptures is an injustice to everyone in the world.”

Guests at the event included the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, the director general of Unesco, Koichiro Matsuura, and prime ministers and culture ministers of many EU countries, including Dr Martin Mansergh from Ireland.

In an act often described as cultural vandalism, substantial parts of the intricate bas relief marble frieze that decorated the Parthenon were hacked off by Lord Elgin in 1801 when he was British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, which then ruled Greece.

Originally intended to be housed in his home in Scotland, the marble sculptures were later sold by Elgin to the British government to repay his debts, and have remained in the British Museum ever since.

Efforts for the past 30 years to repatriate the 2,500-year-old works have been fruitless, with British officials defending their ownership and arguing that their return would set a precedent.

Now, in one of the biggest cultural projects in Europe, there is a new state-of-the-art home.

Designed by New York-based Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi and Athens-based Michael Photiadis, and initially scheduled to open for the 2004 Olympics, the new €130 million museum is a bold three-storey building mounted on 100 huge concrete pillars and topped by a canted glass rectangle rotated to parallel the Parthenon 800 feet away.

Construction work was delayed when a 5,000-year-old urban settlement was unearthed during excavations. Now a glass-floored entrance allows visitors to view the ancient city below. It is a rather unsettling feeling to look down on this vast site as if standing on air.

Inside the airy museum, some 4,000 ancient works from the Parthenon are displayed over two spacious floors in natural light, allowing for an expected 10,000 visitors a day.

The first gallery houses finds from the slopes of the Acropolis, votive offerings like masks and clay objects, along with colossal sculptures of animals and gods that can be seen from all angles and stunning statuary, like those of the Caryatids or maidens that supported the roof of the Erechtheoin, built in 421, and dedicated to the goddess Athena.

What makes the biggest impact, however, is the top-floor gallery. Here the great frieze of the Parthenon has been reassembled like an archeological jigsaw in its original configuration, the remaining Greek pieces contrasting vividly with the white 19th-century plaster casts of the works in London.

It dramatically illustrates the scale of what was plundered and how the logical sequence of the original artwork, depicting a procession of animals and humans, was destroyed.

“It is like looking at a family picture and seeing images of loved ones far away or lost to us,” Mr Samaras said.

Recent proposals to lend some of the marbles in London in exchange for Greek acknowledgement of British ownership have been rejected, but the new museum raises fresh hopes for their return.

Although the British Museum’s stance remains unchanged, leading British academic William St Clair said it “had no moral authority” to keep them any longer.

Greek feelings are very strong.

In his opening speech, prime minister Costas Karamanlis said the question was now an international one. The museum “is the living expression of the power of world culture to bring about the reunification of the Parthenon marbles, because the Parthenon marbles speak in their entirety”.

Dr Mansergh said: “The marbles were taken in 1801, the same year as the Act of Union and Lord Elgin had as much right to take them as they to sign away the parliament in College Green. You are talking about an act of cultural imperialism. I must say I would hope that the British Museum and the British Government will look at the marbles again. It is a matter of huge importance to the Greek nation. Athens is the cradle of democracy and the Parthenon is one of the most important cultural monuments in the world.”

Tickets for the museum’s first three days sold out. As part of the visitor-friendly policy, they are priced at €1 until the end of this year, rising to €5 in 2010.