‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed By British hands, which it had best behoved To guard those relics ne’er to be restored. Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved, And once again thy hapless bosom gored, And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!‘ Lord Byron
The Elgin Marbles debate/controversy reared its ugly head again when it was reported that the British Museum is going to loan a piece to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in Russia. Howls of anguish and cries of foul have broken out in Athens who say this action is the equivalent of poking the Greeks in the eye with a very sharp stick!
In 1817 the British Museum took possession of the Elgin Marbles but the Greeks have built a museum especially for them. Unlike any other museum in the world the Acropolis Museum in Athens is one has been designed to exhibit something it does not own and cannot yet exhibit but hopes that it will be the catalyst for the permanent return of the disputed artefacts. 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.
The gloves are off and the battle is now on between the new state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum and the more traditional British Museum for the right to exhibit them.
The Museum was originally planned to be completed in 2004 to accompany the return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual Athenian home but construction setbacks and various outbreaks of controversy along the way have meant that it did not finally open to the expectant public until June 2009.
After four years of visiting Athens on the way to the Greek islands I finally managed to see the new Acropolis Museum in September 2009. I purchased tickets on line a week or so before for just €1 (prices rose to €5 in 2010, so it was a bargain) and arrived at my allotted 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 effortlessly 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 (or the Parthenon Sculptures, depending on your point of view) I genuinely wondered how I was going to feel.
The British Museum argues that London is a better place to make them available to the public because with 6.7 million visitors in 2013 it is the second most visited museum in the World after the Louvre in Paris. This is a powerful argument and one they can probably rely on for many years to come because in the same year the Acropolis Museum attracted only 1.4 million visitors which puts it way down the most visited list at about sixtieth.
Outside the museum and also in the cavernous entrance hall there are glass floors with sub-level 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 a timeline of seven centuries of ancient 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 rush.
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 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 skilfully avoided the café terrace and the inevitable 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 (or the Elgin Marbles, depending on your point of view) but for the time being has only about half of the originals and the rest are plaster casts made from the remaining treasures currently remaining in London.
It is truly impressive and with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon looming up dramatically outside I can only explain it rather inadequately as a very memorable experience.
Today, not only the Greek Government but most of the Greek people as well would rather like the sculptures back but have consistently turned down a British Museum offer to give the Marbles to the Acropolis Museum on a loan basis for just three months on a similar basis as the arrangement with the Hermitage.
The Culture Minister 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 two hundred years ago.”
After due consideration 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 very complex debate for archaeological scholars to resolve that cannot be rushed for the sake of wounded national pride and a few more years sorting it out is hardly going to matter.
Similar Elgin Marbles disputes over ownership of museum exhibits…
In each case, What are they, Where are they and Who wants them back?
Have a go, it’s just a bit of armless fun!
Andrew I loved the museum and honestly did not know about all the controversy before visiting. I love the line about seeing a marble off to Russia which is like poking the Greeks in the eye with a stick. That’s for sure!
I am requesting hints for the quiz but the final one is Venus de Milo dug out in Greece and now in France in the Louvre. Am I right?
Absolutely, on the island of Milos in 1820 – good start, 3 points already!
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Good post. I knew a couple, but Google image searched them and so yes, I have learned something new for today 🙂 Shame that the Brits are still trying to tell the world how everything should be done – kind of embarrassing really. Reminds me of ‘the father-in-law’ on Harry Enfield.
I am going to have to visit the British Museum next year just to see all of the pieces that are missing on my travels.
Well done on the quiz, get your answers in for marking, there will be a prize for this one!
I cheated too much – but happy just to enjoy the post and accept I even learnt something!
Cheating is fine, that’s what Google is for!
What do you think about the new statistics page?
Not bad… it’s growing on me. We now have more info (likes etc), but like everything, just takes some getting used to. I’m not change adverse; I was a systems developer 🙂
Great choice e very very interesting !
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Let the British Museum display the plaster . Repatriation of these carvings now makes more sense since the Greeks created a good environment to display and conserve them, safe from modern pollution and the vicissitudes of weather. Before, the British Museum served that purpose, and did its job well.
I agree but I doubt that it will happen any time soon.
For crying out loud. Let the Greeks keep their own treasures. That sounds fair enough to me. Same for any and every other country.
I had no idea about the squabble. This has been a most interesting read.
The British Museum argues that the marbles were Ancient Athenian and this is not the same as being Greek. They just happened to be in Athens which is now part of the modern Greek State but without any direct timeline to the Ancient World. It is a very complex disagreement that is set to continue for some time yet!
Squabbles. The human condition. Sigh.
1. Winged Victory, in possession of the French and claimed by the Greeks
2. Rosetta Sonte, in possession of the British and claimed by the Egyptians
3. Samsat Stele, in possession of the British and claimed by the Turks
4. Bust of Nefertiti, in possession of the Germans and claimed by the Egyptians
5. Venus de Milo, in posession of the French and claimed by the Germans
I have to admit that I cheated. I didn’t recognize/know anything about the Samsat Stele at all. And I didn’t know that the Germans believe that the Venus de Milo is their. Google was my parner in crime.
A Full House. Google is good! Thanks! I didn’t know about the Samsat Stele either. Did you see that the hole in the middle is because it was once used as a vine press?
I did. Who would do that?! Even I would know not a drill a huge hole into something that impressive.
I am always intrigued by the question of how the Ancient civilised world fell into the Dark Ages. It doesn’t seem possible to regress like that. But then look at WordPress – it does!
Now, I would not be true to my gender if I did not say No. 4 Bust of Nefretiti – Egypt wants it back from Berlin’s Neues Museum 😀
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