Will the success of the Acropolis Museum change the Elgin Marbles debate?

Unesco intergovernmental committee is now seeking “a mutually satisfactory resolution to the issue”



It has taken 33 years for the Acropolis Museum to come to fruition, but at its opening on 21 June, it was judged to be a triumph: the architecture of the building by Franco-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi and, in particular, the upper gallery, featuring the Parthenon Marbles. But, of course, half of the sculptures are not here in Athens but in the British Museum (BM) in London. For decades, the lack of a suitable venue to display them in Greece was one of the main arguments against their reunification. Now, with the success of this new museum, will the debate over the Marbles’ future change?

At the museum inauguration, the Greeks, predictably, reiterated their claim. Culture minister Antonis Samaras stated that the Marbles had been “looted” by Lord Elgin. “They will be reunited, here, in the Acropolis Museum,” he predicted.

Absent from the audience was BM director Neil MacGregor. He was only invited on 18 May (although the opening date had been announced in February), and by this time he had arranged a visit to Saudi Arabia. The BM was represented by the deputy chairman of its trustees, Bonnie Greer. Superficially, the Marbles dispute seemed as intractable as ever.

However, a closer reading of the situation suggests that there may be some flexibility. Unesco director-general Koïchiro Matsuura spoke at the inauguration, and in a little-noticed comment, he revealed that its 22-member intergovernmental committee on the return of cultural property is becoming actively involved. Greece and Britain had invited Unesco “to assist in convening necessary meetings between the two countries with the aim of reaching a mutually satisfactory resolution to the issue,” he said.

Until now the Greek claim has often appeared nationalistic, mainly because of the absence of an appropriate place to display the sculptures. Hopefully the focus of the debate will now become cultural: should the Marbles be shown together in Athens in their dedicated museum or with half of them in London, where they are presented in the context of one of the world’s finest antiquities collections?

Lord Elgin acquired the Marbles in the early 19th century with permission from the Turkish government (which then ruled Greece). They were purchased by the BM in 1816. There is no basis for any Greek legal claim for their return. The only practical way to reunite the Marbles in Athens would be by long-term loans.

No loan request has ever been made, presumably because of a Greek concern that they would have to admit British legal ownership, which they are reluctant to concede. The BM responds that until the Greeks submit a loan request, there is little to discuss. Even then, the trustees would need cast-iron guarantees that the Marbles would be returned to London when the loan period comes to an end.

Last month The Art Newspaper probed Mr Samaras on whether there is a way out of the impasse. He quickly retorted: “You would obviously not expect me to conduct negotiations in public,” a comment that hints at possible scope for discussion.

Another concern for the BM is that any loan of Parthenon sculptures should not be regarded as a precedent for other claims, from Greece or elsewhere. In this respect, Acropolis Museum president Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis made a subtle point. Showing us the newly installed Caryatids, which were removed from the Erechtheion temple for conservation reasons (and replaced with replicas), he pointed out that the sixth female figure had been taken by Lord Elgin.

Professor Pandermalis would be delighted if the BM’s Caryatid was returned, but it is in a different category from the Marbles. Although the Erechtheion is an important part of the Acropolis, and 40 metres from the Parthenon, only the Marbles are being claimed. In the new museum, there is a discreet grey square on the display pedestal to indicate where the sixth Caryatid should stand, instead of a plaster cast (whereas the claimed Marbles are represented by casts).

If the Marbles, or some of them, are returned to Greece, the Greeks have promised that they would lend generously to the BM. Mr Saramas said at the inauguration: “We can fill the space in the [BM] galleries, by lending changing collections of the best ancient Greek masterpieces.”

The bottom line is that discussions over possible loans may take many years, possibly decades. If there is progress, it is likely to begin by reassembling individual panels that are divided between London and Athens.

Although most of the Marbles outside Athens are at the BM, a few pieces are in other European collections, and three owners of small fragments have returned these to Athens. The University of Heidelberg donated a piece with part of two feet, and this has been incorporated in the displayed frieze. The Vatican Museums loaned the head of a youth and Palermo’s Regional Archaeological Museum lent the right foot of the goddess Artemis. These two long-term loans are displayed in separate cases near the appropriate frieze—presumably to emphasise that they are loans.

In the Parthenon Gallery it is immediately apparent that half the works are casts, since these are whiter, compared with the creamier colour of the originals, dating from 433-438BC. Integrating originals and casts gives visitors the best possible impression of the original ensemble.

Viewers will gradually realise that a number of individual panels are split, with a main part in London or Athens and a fragment, such as a head, in the other city. Most symbolically of all, the torso of the goddess Athena from the west pediment is in London and part of her head in Athens. There are no strident wall texts about the Marbles dispute in the gallery. The museum has wisely allowed the sculptures to speak for themselves.

The first architectural competition for the Acropolis Museum was launched in 1976, and later cancelled, as were subsequent competitions in 1979 and 1989. New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi won the fourth competition in 2001. Although his building is successful inside, inevitably it is very large and dominant in the locale.

The government initially announced the museum would be open for the 2004 Athens Olympics, but the discovery of archaeological remains on the site and planning issues led to further delays. Although the E130m building was completed in September 2007, fitting out the displays took much longer than expected.

Tickets to the museum cost only E1 (until January, when they rise to E5), compared with E12 for the Acropolis itself, which gets two million visitors a year. Although there is no official estimate, the new museum is likely to attract three million a year, putting it among the world’s top ten most visited.

Inside the Museum

Visitors entering the Acropolis Museum walk over a glass floor giving views below to the archaeological remains on the site. They then walk up the central ramp. Display cases lining the sides present pottery and smaller artefacts found on the slopes of the Acropolis.

The middle floor provides a presentation of important Archaic sculptures, dating from the seventh to the early fifth centuries BC. These are shown in a huge open gallery with concrete columns that support the building over the archaeological excavations. The dark grey concrete absorbs light, while the warm cream of the marble of the sculptures reflects it, giving an appropriate contrast.

Escalators then take visitors to the upper level, to the Parthenon Gallery. The metope reliefs, which had been on the temple’s exterior, are presented on a steel frame with the same architectural footprint as the Parthenon, and are placed at a height of around 2.5 metres. The frieze, which ran on the exterior of the temple’s inner wall, is slightly further towards the centre of the museum, on a wall at an eye-level height of 1.5 metres. At the east and west ends, the free-standing pedimental sculptures are presented on a long, low pedestal. From the gallery, there is the unforgettable view of the Acropolis, just 300 metres away.

Originally appeared in The ArtNewspaper as 'Will the success of the Acropolis Museum change the Marbles debate?'