Greece's indecision over the housing of the Parthenon Marbles

Twenty years after the government decided to build a new museum to house the sculptures, still no architect has been chosen


What would happen to the Elgin Marbles if they were returned to Greece? Let us imagine that an Act of Parliament were voted for their restitution, and that the Trustees of the British Museum complied graciously. Where would the Greek Ministry of Culture exhibit them? Would they be available to the world as they are at the British Museum, where six million people see them every year? Unfortunately, these masterpieces of antiquity would disappear from public view because Greece is not ready to receive them. For more than two decades, the Greek government has failed to build a New Acropolis Museum in Athens to house the marbles and without a successful museum building strategy, the Greek government’s claims for restitution are dead in the water.

On 12 December 1999, Lina Mendoni, Secretary General of the Greek Ministry of Culture, announced that a fourth architectural competition will be held for the New Acropolis Museum, which is to be built in time for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

This announcement follows the cancellation last autumn of the previous competition, and the firing of the winning architects because of the discovery of important archeological remains at the site where the new museum is to be built.

The proposed museum

The new Acropolis museum is planned specifically to house the marbles currently in London. The existing Acropolis museum, housed in a nineteenth-century building, is already crammed full with archaeological finds.

The building of a new museum to house the marbles was suggested as a condition for their return to Greece by the British Foreign Office as far back as 1941. Athens’s notorious atmospheric pollution would make claims for restitution without the provision of a museum unworkable.

It was in the mid 1960s that Kostantinos Karamanlis, minister at the time, and subsequently Prime Minister in the 1970s and President in the 1980s, first embraced the idea. Despite Karamanlis’s failure to steer the project to completion, the idea took hold.

Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture from 1981 to 1989, and again from October 1993 to her death in March 1994, was the primary instigator of Greece’s restitution claims. The average tenure of the other fifteen ministers since the ministry was established in 1971, has been sixteen months. It is not surprising that between them they have failed to elaborate a consistent policy for the building of the museum. The only constant has been the call for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles.

The three competitions

The Ministry of Culture organised a first competition for proposals to build the museum in 1976. The entries were so unsatisfactory that the jury granted only third, fourth and fifth prizes. A second competition took place in 1979 and yielded no better results. These two competitions were open only to Greek architects.

In 1986, a third international competition was planned. In 1989, 438 architects from forty countries submitted plans. In 1990 the design of Italian architects Manfredi Nicoletti and Lucio Passarelli was awarded first prize. Shortly thereafter, the competition was declared void by the Constitutional Council because of a technicality (the blind jury selection process was said to have been compromised).

But the ministry was satisfied with the winners and requested detailed plans from them in 1992. Disregard for the original brief forced the Italians to scale down their original plans from 35,000 square metres to 10,000.

It was in 1997, eleven years after the international competition was conceived, that these detailed construction plans were completed and building was set to begin. Emergency excavations, however, further delayed construction and eventually led to the cancellation of building last autumn.

The Greek Ministry of Culture’s handling of the competition and the choice of the Italian design had already sparked an international outcry led by Columbia University professor Kenneth Frampton and supported by the Greek Architects Association. On 28 April 1997, Frampton addressed a letter to the Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos, signed by twenty-two architects (including David Chipperfield, Michael Graves, Steven Holl, Richard Meier, and Richard Rogers) asking that the project be halted. Frampton wrote, “It is difficult to imagine anything more inappropriate for the Parthenon Marbles than the [Italian] design in as much as its interior resembles a department store or supermarket rather than a museum.”

The letter pointed out the discrepancy between the size of the projected building and that of the building site, the displacement of 150 families that would be necessary, the post facto decision to create a subway stop, and the undeniable importance of the archaeological site. Frampton concluded by describing the original brief as “ill-conceived”. The Ministry of Culture ignored Frampton’s letter.

Christos Papoulias, Greece’s most prominent living architect, who has worked for fourteen years on an alternative proposal for the New Acropolis Museum (drawings and models are in the architectural collection of the Centre Pompidou), did not participate in the third competition.

Nor does he intend to take part in the fourth. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Papoulias said, “This situation is totally absurd because there is no programme. There should have been an international symposium with architects, urban planners, sociologists, etc. [The ministry] should have been informed as to whether a museum like the one they planned was even necessary.”

According to Papoulias, there may be other reasons for the Greek government’s push forward and for their bias towards particular design solutions, “They see the claim for the return of the Elgin Marbles only in tandem with a big, shiny building, an American-type museum...What they are doing is related to the logic of the state connected with entrepreneurs. ‘We get the money from the EU. we put some in our pockets. People are working. We help the entrepreneurs. We help the workers. Whether Athens could accommodate a museum in that specific place is not that much their concern.”

Archaeology in the way

No one seems to have ever questioned the feasibility of constructing a museum on the Makriyianni site, adjacent to the Theatre of Dionysos on the southeast side of the Acropolis hill, one of the richest archaeological sites in all of Greece.

Preliminary excavation research on sections of the site were carried out in 1980, 1983-84 and 1987-90. According to Ismini Trianti, Director of the Acropolis Museum and of the A’Eforia, the most recent excavations, which cover an area of 9,000 square metres, began in January 1997 and will be completed in May.

Significant discoveries include three ancient roads, and remains of buildings ranging from the first to the seventh century AD. These include a 1,100 square metre building complex dating from the first to seventh century AD; Roman and late Roman baths; remnants of early Roman, and late Christian houses. The transportable findings were “numerous and important”. Rumours that the site contains potters’ and painters’ quarters with in situ frescoes and mosaics remain to be confirmed.

Following the results of the excavation, the Central Archaeological Council judged the architectural plans impracticable in October 1999. In November, the Ministry of Culture put its official stamp on the cancellation and made public the decision of OANMA (Organisation for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum established by the Greek parliament in 1995) to proceed with a fourth architectural competition for the site.

According to OANMA, five to fifteen candidates will be pre-selected in order to expedite the process. The committee will meet in Athens this year to compile the brief. The winning results will be announced early in 2001, and the building will have to be completed in early 2004 for the Olympic Games.

Not only is the ministry’s schedule over-ambitious, its response to the archaeological findings is being dictated by the desire to build its museum.

Consider the ministry’s role in the project to build another museum in Athens, the Alexandros and Eliza Goulandris Museum of Modern and Contemporary art, designed by I.M. Pei.

The discovery on the proposed building site of remains of the Athens Lyceum where Plato and Aristotle once taught, brought the project to an abrupt end. Construction was indefinitely postponed, and an alternative site remains to be selected.

In the case of the New Acropolis Museum, however, despite overwhelming evidence of the site’s historical importance, the Ministry intends to have its building.

Able stewards?

The cleaning “scandal” at the British Museum has focused the restitution debate on the museum’s ability to look after the sculptures. What the debate has largely ignored is Greece’s questionable stewardship of its existing patrimony.

According to Christos Papoulias, “the Prime Minister recently visited the antiquities excavated at Makriyianni. The Culture Ministry even fools the Prime Minister. They said to him, ‘The Museum of Acropolis is late because of these very important findings.’ They don’t tell the truth and say, ‘We’ve made some mistakes; we devised a failed competition; we are late because we could not fire the Italians.’ They say, ‘We found some antiquities.’ But these antiquities were excavated several months back.”

The Greek Ministry of Culture’s ability to look after the monuments that remain on the Acropolis has also been called into serious question.

In an article published by the St Louis Post on 7 June 1998 and picked up by the international press, Helena Smith reported on the ongoing Acropolis restorations. “Twenty-three years after the preservation project began, the government has aired its disgust with the bureaucratic delays that are being blamed for the monument’s shocking degradation. Conservationists had originally hoped the work would be finished by 1995. Instead, factional warfare and mismanagement of funds have meant that repairs have been completed only on the smallest of the Acropolis’ four temples, the Erechtheum.”

Then Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos commented, “More than DRM500 million are earmarked for the project every year. I’m afraid to say that very little of it is absorbed because of bureaucratic delays.” If not absurd, it is at least ironic that the government and ministry complain of mismanagement and bureaucracy when they have only themselves to blame.

When delays have not been the problem, destructive negligence sometimes has been. Last year’s destruction of the Asklepeion, a small, fourth century BC temple on the island of Paros calls into question the Greek government’s ability to safeguard its archaeological heritage. A “bulldozer with metal traction belt” destroyed this building and others, according to a committee of foreign preservationists living on Patmos whose pleas to the Ministry have fallen on deaf ears.

Administrative delays for which no one is responsible, a Janus-faced perspective on Greece’s archaeological heritage (conservationist or vandal depending on the direction of the financial winds), consistent disregard of respected archeologists and architects. Sadly, this embarrassing characterisation of the Ministry of Culture is all too accurate.

o According to a report in the London Times on 11 May, Greece is in danger of losing the right to stage the 2004 Olympic games because of concern over delays in the construction of sports venues and the Olympic village; hotel bookings; television rights; transportation, and security. Following an official warning from the International Olympic Committee, Costas Simitis, the Greek Prime Minister replaced the chief organiser of the Games, Panagiotis Thomopoulos, with the lawyer Yianna Angelopoulos.

Originally appeared as in The Art Newspaper as 'Where would the Parthenon marbles go?'