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As we bluster towards post-Brexit trade bants with the EU, the Parthenon Marbles have rolled into view due to a potential clause which calls for “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin.”
Shouldn’t the British Museum quietly return the Parthenon Marbles and ponder the bloody spoils in the rest of their collection?
When I first visited Athens in ’87, Stuart Laing and I trooped ‘round the Acropolis, hungover, inhaling dust and sucking up smog in the blistering heat. Aspiring drama students, we made theatrical nods to Dionyisia and Thespis, but were mainly keen on ouzo, bongs and discos.
Teenage optimism spawned visions of performing mythological improvisations in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the south slope. This was not to be.
The site was horribly busy. The museum was cramped and our brains were addled. The dreams of romance, awe and enlightenment proved elusive.
In the intervening decades, Athens upped its game on the Parthenon front and testimony to its pride, passion and expertise is the New Acropolis Museum.
Robbed and flogged
The Brits have consistently sniffed that the Greeks were guilty of being a tad 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 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 deed whileGreece was under Ottoman control. After shipping the treasures home, Bruce got broke and flogged them to the British Government. They’ve been on display at the British Museum ever since.
The British Museum maintains they have the best venue for platforming Elgin’s spoils and refuses to discuss their return. This arsey stance became Rizla-thin when The New Acropolis Museum opened it’s fabulous doors.
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. The ground level features a glass floor to view the archaeological digs below. At 14,000 square metres, the awesome building offers huge, airy space to the exceptional artefacts.
The museum’s design ensures the contents are bathed in ambient natural light at every turn. Mathematical precision and conceptual clarity make the space a calming joy to peruse. It makes parts of the British Museum look like a busy, overstuffed wardrobe.
It was hard not to bristle with shame on seeing the five Caryatids on the second floor. These are the gorgeous 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 empty space where she should be standing. Never has a pedestal seemed so provocative.
The Times has claimed the EU’s draft negotiating guidelines for a trade deal with the UK include a commitment to the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin.”
A Downing Street source told The Sun that the marbles were “going nowhere.”
The Acropolis Museum’s penthouse atrium offers 360-degree panoramic views of the Parthenon and the city below. The floor’s devoted to the temple’s Pentelic marble decorations. Metopes, frieze fragments and pediments are organised in their original positioning.
The rectangular room has floor-to-ceiling windows and is tilted to align with the Parthenon itself. As you ponder the historic work, the Acropolis hovers on the horizon, looking majestic through the epic windows.
History might be prey to debate, but Britain should return the marbles, because it’s the right thing to do. ‘Great’ Britain has much to atone for and clinging to past crimes like they’re badges of honour is not something to be proud of. Unlike the the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
Main picture: The central akroterion of the Parthenon roof 447–432 BC © Acropolis Museum