Missing Parthenon sculptures “A constant reminder of Britain’s unfulfilled debt to world heritage”?

New Acropolis Museum director Professor Dimitrios Pantermalis is calling on the British Museum to return its sculptures on long-term loan.

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The New Acropolis Museum is now unlikely to be ready for the opening of the Olympic Games in August 2004. Although Greek Culture Minister Professor Evangelos Venizelos gave The Art Newspaper a firm assurance that “the main Parthenon Hall will be open”, he admitted that the remainder of the galleries might well not be finished. The minister’s comments were made in London, following his meetings with British Museum director Neil MacGregor and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell.

The Parthenon Gallery in the New Acropolis Museum will be a huge glass “box”, with a floor area of 80 by 40 metres, allowing generous room for the frieze to be displayed in the same way as it was originally on the exterior of the temple (unlike in the British Museum and the present Acropolis Museum, where space is a constraint). The glass would allow the sculptures to be viewed largely in natural light and visitors will be able to look out towards the Parthenon.

New Acropolis Museum director Professor Dimitrios Pantermalis is calling on the British Museum to return its sculptures on long-term loan. If these are not available then he will leave gaps in the display space. “It would not be appropriate to integrate casts with the originals,” he explained. Culture Minister Professor Venizelos gave a slightly different explanation, saying the voids would represent “a constant reminder of [Britain’s] unfulfilled debt to world heritage.”

The New Acropolis Museum’s other galleries, which are unlikely to be fully fitted-out by the Olympics, include rooms with artefacts from the slopes of the Acropolis, and the Archaic, Post-Parthenon and the Roman periods. This will make it possible to reassemble antiquities from several Athenian museums and stores. There will be a gallery for temporary exhibitions, which may show Byzantine remains. Archaeological finds discovered during building work on the museum will also be on view.

The story of the New Acropolis Museum is a long-running drama dating back nearly three decades, to the time of the late Culture Minister Melina Mercouri. The first competition for an architect was held in 1976, but the entries were disappointing and a further competition was held three years later. This too was unsatisfactory and after a third competition in 1989, two Italian architects were selected. There was then a long series of problems which eventually led to a fourth competition, which was won in October 2001 by New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi. The main contract for the construction has now been awarded to Themeliodomi.

Construction of the £55 million ($86.8 million) museum was to have begun last spring, but it was delayed in order to complete archaeological excavations. Considerable remains were found, and this sparked a controversy over the wisdom of building on the site, just below the hill of the Acropolis. The Greek authorities point out that ancient remains are found nearly everywhere in central Athens and that most of the site has been preserved. Securing the archaeological remains has now been virtually completed and work on the foundations is likely to begin this month. Last month it was revealed that visitor numbers at the new museum are predicted to be between 3 and 4 million, compared with 4.8 million who went to the British Museum last year.

At their meeting in London on 11 November Professor Venizelos spoke with Neil MacGregor about the Greek proposal that the British Museum should retain ownership of their Marbles, but offer them to Athens on permanent loan, thereby avoiding the legal problems of deaccessioning. The British Museum could also retain some control over their display in the New Acropolis Museum, possibly creating an “outpost” in Athens. In return, the Greeks would provide a changing exhibition of top-class antiquities for the Duveen Gallery in London.

Despite the more positive Greek approach, and Mr MacGregor’s appointment, the British Museum has not shifted from its earlier position. Following the meeting, a BM statement was issued pointing out that the Parthenon sculptures are “among a select group of key objects which are indispensable to the museum’s core function, which is to tell the story of human cultural evolution and civilisation.” It added that the British Museum provided “the best possible place for the Parthenon sculptures to be on display to 5 million visitors a year, entirely free of entry charge; here the worldwide significance of the sculptures can be fully appreciated.”

Although there was little movement on the Marbles, two British Museum loans for the 2004 Cultural Olympiad are likely to go ahead. Eight vases are being lent to the National Museum in Athens for an exhibition on “Competition”. A request has also just been received for 13 Renaissance drawings for a show at the National Gallery in Athens entitled “In the light of Apollo”. Subject to conservation requirements, this loan is expected to be approved. The British Museum has pointed to these loans, saying that it “looks forward to many such collaborative ventures in the future.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“A constant reminder of Britain’s unfulfilled debt to world heritage”?'

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