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Regardless of the legal complexities and fears of ‘setting a precedent’ we should return the Parthenon marbles, says Stewart Who?
When I first came to Athens in ’87, Stuart Laing and I trooped ‘round the Acropolis, brutally hungover, sucking up dust and smog in the blistering heat. Aspiring and pretentious drama students, we affected devotion to Dionyisia and Thespis, but were much keener on ouzo, bongs and discos.
Prior to arrival, teenage optimism had prompted visions of improvising and spontaneously performing in the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the south slope. This was not to be.
The site was incredibly busy, the adjoining museum was cramped, our minds were addled and the anticipated romance and enlightenment proved highly elusive. Euripides would not have been impressed.
In the intervening three decades, Athens has upped its game on the Parthenon front and testimony to its pride, passion and expertise is the New Acropolis Museum.
Robbed and flogged
For years, the Brits have sniffed that the Greeks were guilty of being, well, a bit casual with their antiquities. True or not, we’ve been guilty of robbing them. The Parthenon Marbles, or Elgin’s Marbles (as they shouldn’t be known) were yanked, rather brutally from the Parthenon in the early 19th century. At best, they were acquired through an agreement of very dubious legitimacy.
The perpetrator of this shady souveniring was Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. He did the deal when Greece was under Ottoman control. After shipping the treasures home, Bruce got broke and flogged them to the British Government and they’ve been on display at the British Museum ever since.
The British Museum has long maintained they boasted the best venue for showcasing Elgin’s spoils and has stuffily refused to even discuss or contemplate their return. This cocky stance has become thin as a Rizla since The New Acropolis Museum opened.
This summer, Nikos Xydakis, the Greek culture minister ruled out pursuing restitution through the international courts, despite the previous government’s hiring of a high-end legal team from London’s Doughty Street Chambers – which includes, among others, Amal Clooney.
“The road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political,” Xydakis said on Greece’s Mega TV . “You can’t go to trial on every issue, and in international courts the outcome is uncertain, things are not so easy.” So it seems.
Designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greek architect Michalis Fotiadis, The Acropolis Museum it’s a dazzling temple of modernity that soothes and serves in equal measure.
The entire museum floats above the Makriyianni settlement on concrete columns, with the ground level featuring an unnerving glass floor to vada the archaeological digs below. At 14,000 square metres, the awesome building offers enormous, airy space to the exceptional artefacts.
The museum’s shrewd design means the contents are bathed in ambient natural light at every turn. Mathematical precision and conceptual clarity make the museum a calming joy to peruse. To be honest, it makes parts of the British Museum look like a stressful, overstuffed, cupboard.
It was hard not to bristle with shame on seeing the five Caryatids on the second floor. These are the spectacular marble divas who supported the Acropolis’s Erectheion building. There should be six of these sculptures in Athens, but their kidnapped sister currently lives a lonely life at the British Museum.
There’s a symbolic, stinging space where she should be standing. Never has an empty pedestal seemed so provocative.
The Acropolis Museum’s top-floor atrium offers 360-degree panoramic views of the Parthenon and contemporary Athens and is devoted to the temple’s Pentelic marble decorations. Metopes, frieze fragments and pediments have capacity to be organised in their original positioning.
The rectangle-shaped room boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and is tilted to align with the Parthenon itself. As you contemplate the historic work, the Acropolis hovers on the nearby horizon, majestically visible through the enormous windows.
In conclusion, they’ve done their homework, for fuck’s sake, give ‘em back their marbles. History may be open to interpretation and debate, but Britain should return the marbles because it’s the right thing to do.
Main picture: The central akroterion of the Parthenon roof 447–432 BC © Acropolis Museum