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The Acropolis Museum and the return of the Parthenon Sculptures: Back to the future


On 20 June 2019 Greece and the world museum community will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The state-of-the-art museum is regarded as one of the best in the world and its designers, builders and operators are justifiably entitled to celebrate this defining structure.

The Acropolis Museum and the return of the Parthenon Sculptures: Back to the future
The Acropolis Museum celebrates its 10th year, while the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles
remains a dream [Credit: Neos Kosmos]
But amidst all the euphoria, let’s not forget that the museum was seen as the long-awaited catalyst for the return of the Elgin collection of Parthenon Sculptures currently on display in the British Museum. Ten years later, how closer is Greece to reunifying the Parthenon Sculptures?

It is important to recall that one of the main reasons for the new museum was to counter the British argument that the Greeks did not have a suitable museum for the Parthenon Sculptures even if they were ever returned to Athens. Indeed, as one historian has noted, the new museum was intended not only to create a modern museum space that related directly to the Scared Rock, but also served as a “political vehicle for the vociferous expression of the request for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum and a proof that they will take good care in the soil that gave birth to them”.

For years, the British Museum had dreaded the moment when an iconic new museum would rise from the ground in Athens. In fact, on 22 March 1991 the former Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, B M Cook, had sent a memo to the British Museum director with this warning:

“The next phase of the campaign for repatriation is likely to begin any time after the actual start of construction of the new Acropolis Museum. The problem has not gone away, it is merely in hibernation; and when it wakes up, our successors will find that it is fiercer than before.”


The Greeks had also assumed that the new museum would make that case emphatically. As a 2002 report in the Washington Post noted, Greece was building the museum in hopes of reinforcing efforts to change the up-to-now negative stance of the British government and ”shaming the British government into giving back sculptures taken two centuries ago”.

Prior to the actual unveiling of the museum in 2009 the former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis declared: “Once the museum is completed, Greece will have a very strong argument for the return of the Parthenon sculptures. We are taking a very important step to finally realise a dream that unites all Greeks.”

The Acropolis Museum has therefore always been the centrepiece of the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures but unfortunately it was assumed that, once built, the case for return would be made out.

At the actual opening, the then President of the Hellenic Republic, Karolos Papoulias, stated: “The whole world can see, all together, the most significant sculptures of the Parthenon. Some are missing. Now is the time to heal the monument’s wounds with the return of the marbles to where they belong … their natural setting.”

The Acropolis Museum has therefore always been the centrepiece of the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures but unfortunately it was assumed that, once built, the case for return would be made out.


For a start, the British Museum had other ideas. Over the last decade it has carefully rebranded itself as the universal museum, the “museum of the Enlightenment”, the “collective memory of mankind”, a museum at the “centre of a conversation with the world” and therefore the logical repository for the marbles. Today, it arrogantly describes itself as the “museum of and for the world”.

According to the British Museum, the life of the Elgin Marbles as part of the story of the Parthenon is over and they are now part of another narrative, that of the British Museum in London, in a not too subtle attempt to suppress the context of their origin.

In April 2018, the British Museum hauled some twelve pedimental sculptures, metopes and parts of the frieze into a separate hall in the museum under the pretext of displaying these works of art together with sculptures by the renown French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. In its press release the British Museum stressed that the exhibition “will provide a new opportunity to focus on the Parthenon Sculptures as individual works rather than as part of an ensemble” as an obvious counter to the claim that the sculptures are integral to a unique monument.”

This followed a similar exhibition – Defining Beauty – in 2015 and the notorious ‘loan’ of the River God Ilissos pedimetal sculpture to the Hermitage Museum in Russia in late 2014.

Whilst Greece may have a new museum in Athens, the British Museum has devised a new political and diplomatic playbook by which it promotes the Parthenon Sculptures as individual works of art which can be dispersed or dismembered as the Trustees see fit, with no intention of ever returning the collection to Athens.


Meanwhile, cultural diplomacy via mediation through UNESCO has been rejected. Resolutions made at the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on Cultural Property over the last 30 years for meaningful negotiations to be undertaken between Greece and Great Britain over the sculptures have also been routinely ignored by the British side.

So, while we can justifiably celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Acropolis Museum as a magnificent museum and the unifying element for the Parthenon and its sculptures, the unfortunate reality is that we are no closer to the return of the sculptures.

Whilst Greece may have a new museum in Athens, the British Museum has devised a new political and diplomatic playbook by which it promotes the Parthenon Sculptures as individual works of art which can be dispersed or dismembered as the Trustees see fit

The next Greek Government needs to carefully reassess its approach and to embrace all political, diplomatic and legal options that are available to bring about an effective resolution so that one day, when all the known surviving sculptures are finally reunited from the British Museum and elsewhere, the Parthenon Gallery of the Acropolis Museum can truly be called the most famous single room of Classical Greek art in the world.

Only then will the Greek Stones truly speak.

Author: George Vardas (Vice-Chair of Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures) | Source: Neos Kosmos [June 18, 2019]

TANN

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2 comments :

  1. I think that the whole world is in agreement that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece where they belong. It's about time that the British Museum woke up to this and stopped useing them as a political scapegoat. It's nothing but blackmail.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi as a Londoner, a lover of both the British Museum (it's my favourite museum and one which I go to more than any other) and of Athens, I think the argument that they 'had to stay in London' to ensure their safety ended the day the new Acropolis Museum opened. Go there, look at the remaining Parthenon Marbles displayed in their proper relative pace, and within sight of the Parthenon itself.
    The case for their return is really unanswerable.
    I understand why the BM doesn't want to hand them over, but I feel in the end it will be forced to do so.
    It would be better to come to some mutual agreement first so that both Athens and London can benefit.
    best Tim

    ReplyDelete


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