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.
Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto XV, 3-6.
Last summer, the New Acropolis Museum in Athens opened its gates, not only to the public but
also to a flood of arguments and emotions old and new. The root cause of this commotion lies in
the fact that nearly half of the sculptures which originally graced the Parthenon have been residing
in the British Museum, ever since they were purchased from the bankrupt Lord Elgin in 1816. Numerous smaller fragments, it is often forgotten, are kept by other museums across Europe.
It is difficult to judge whether Elgin – who removed the pieces under contested legal circumstances when Athens was under Ottoman rule – ultimately did more to save or to damage the marbles, and no easier to tell whether he was acting out of greed or preservationist foresight. What is clear is that, while the original Acropolis museum (established in 1865) was never capable of adequately housing the site’s antiquities, and the British Museum’s current display of the sculptures in its possession remains poor, the New Acropolis Museum has been specifically designed to display all of the sculptures, including those held in London. (These are currently represented by unpatinated plaster casts acquired from the British Museum in 1840). Whatever the historical and counterfactual details may be, the time is now ripe for all surviving sculptures to be reunited under one roof.
This claim has been contested by the trustees of the British Museum and many others, such as James Cuneo of the Chicago Institute of Art, who defend the universalist position that it is only in large international museums can historical art and craft be appreciated and understood in the full context of both the (earlier) cultures that influenced it and the (later) work it inspired. Universalists also argue that the return of any significant artifact or collection to its place of origin would create a slippery slope that would soon empty international museums of all their treasures, thereby denying potential visitors the chance of a universal encyclopedic experience.
Whatever the general merits and demerits of the universalist stance, it is short-sighted to appeal to it in the case at hand. At the New Acropolis Museum, we can explore the sculptures of the temple of the goddess Athena Parthenos within the rich cultural context of (i) the Pre-Classical (Archaic) Greek art and craft that influenced it – including prehistoric artefacts from as early as the Neolithic period, sculptures from the 8th Century BC temple of Athena Polias, and cult artefacts from the 6th Century BC sanctuary of the Nymphe; (ii) the near-contemporary monuments created for the same ground, namely the Propylaia (437-432 BC), the Temple of Athena Nike (c.426 BC), the Erektheion (421-406 BC) and the later sanctuaries of Dionysos Eleuthereus and Asklepios; and (iii) the Hellenistic (4th-1st Century BC) and Roman (1st-4th Century AD) work erected on the Acropolis, which includes two quadrigas with mythological compositions and royal statues. These important periods of development are all weakly represented in the British Museum, although it does house
one of the six Caryatids of the south side of the Erektheion (the other five remain in Athens). By contrast, the archeological excavation carried out at the site of the museum in Athens has recently unearthed thousands of additional finds from various phases of the ancient city, to be exhibited in 2010.
If the missing sculptures and fragments were returned to Athens – be it on permanent loan or in exchange for some of the above – the museum would also allow visitors to study the sculptures of the single frieze, with its two pediments and 92 metopes, as one entire whole, naturally lit by the Attican sun, with a direct view of the monument of which they were once a part. Such an act of reunification would not set a precedent for any individual piece or collection that does not form an intricate part of a larger whole.
It is tempting to say that, by displaying them in sequence and in their entirety, we could get as close as possible to a true understanding of what the sculptor Phedias intended us to see. In actual fact
we can already see much more than the ancients ever did, and not merely because only the very privileged few had access to it, whereas now anybody is free to enter, if not – regrettably – for free (as they are in the British Museum). The Ionic frieze originally occupied such a lofty position behind the outer Doric metopes that it could barely be observed. This is because the friezes were designed first and foremost to please not humans but the gods, a point easily forgotten in the New Museum, where we are also indulged with a 360% view of the finely sculpted pediment pieces, originally only subject to the judgment of human eyes from the front.
The British Museum responded to the opening of New Acropolis Museum by stating that the museum would consider temporary loan requests of their Parthenon sculptures by any foreign government, including Greece, provided that it was acknowledged that “the [British] museum has legal title” to the collection in question. The Greek minister of Culture, Antonis Samaras, expressed offence at the very thought of such a loan, since it impliedthat the sculptures were not owned by Greece: “How can anyone dare say they belong to the British?”. Asked whether the issue of ownership could be put aside, Samaras retorted that “no Greek can sign up for that”. Yet at this stage in history the question of ownership is of peripheral importance. If it turned out that the marble used to make the sculptures had been stolen from Persian quarries, would Samaras agree that the whole thing should be shipped to Iran? To put the question of ownership first is to let nationalistic sentiment obstruct the only path that makes aesthetic sense.
What has been worryingly clear for some time is that neither side in this debate cares about the sculptures for the right reasons. If they did, the removed sculptures would already be on display, for free, alongside the Athenian ones, be it on permanent loan/exchange from the British Museum – and from any other museums which hold pieces, such as the Louvre – or in a joint Greek and British international museum.