‘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.
To be continued…
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!