Simplicity and light at new Acropolis Museum

The new Acropolis Museum was in the spotlight at a conference on the Parthenon Marbles held in Athens Wednesday, titled «The Parthenon Marbles in view of the 2004 Olympiad: The international perspective on the future of all antiquities.» The light-filled, 3,500-square-meter hall designed to house the Parthenon Marbles, stands in a dialectical relationship to the Parthenon, according to Nikos Vatopoulos, and seems to sum up both the practical and symbolic dimensions of the problem. Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis explained how the new museum suits the 21st century, intimating that the wonderful new building offers a new way of managing the cultural heritage for «the needs of contemporary humanity,» in comparison with the antiquated, ark-like museums of the 20th century. A virtual visit to the museum designed by architect Bernard Tschumi and his Greek colleague Michalis Fotiadis attracted close attention. Crystalline simplicity is the keynote, said the architects, echoed by Pandermalis, president of the Greek committee for the restitution of the Marbles. The museum is based on the use of light – clear, and simple, Tschumi explained. Cylindrical columns set 8 meters apart guarantee the statics of the building, and lend an air of grandeur to the spare interior of specially manufactured glass, concrete and marble. In these clean, gracious surroundings, visitors will be able to view the excavations of the Makryianni site, which have provoked so much controversy, but which museum officials say are a major advantage because they link the different historical phases of Athens. Maurice Davis, vice president of the Museums Association of Britain, presented what he said was a recent change in the attitude of the British Museum, which seems to have relaxed its stance over the past two or three weeks and accepted the possibility of dialogue. Apparently Neil MacGregor, the tough-minded director of the British Museum, has expressed a desire to meet Pandermalis. Davis conveyed an invitation to Pandermalis and Tschumi to a meeting of the British Museums Association in October. David Hill, public relations director for the Australian committee for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, analyzed the development of the issue from a dispute between two sides to an international issue with encouraging prospects. American art historian Professor Jennifer Neils spoke passionately in favor of returning the Marbles, as did British MP Richard Allan, who made a clever and humorous speech explaining how he came to support the return of the Marbles and the symbolic significance of the year 2004. The conference, held by The Economist, with Kathimerini as communications sponsor, provided a rare opportunity for speakers to voice opposing points of view on the issue. Even Michael Daley, sculptor and editor of ArtWatch UK, argued on nationalist lines, saying that the Parthenon sculptures had «stopped being symbols and had become social commodities» and should not be returned to their original location. He cited the Athens smog and pollution, claiming that the «nation that showed lack of concern for its heritage and did not treat its monuments properly didn’t need extra responsibilities.» He also asserted that the new Acropolis Museum was located in an earthquake-prone area, and dubbed the campaign to return the Marbles «a betrayal of the global for the sake of the local.» Later, when Daley asked the committee members if they wanted the Marbles back or a general return of antiquities from museums, Jules Dassin, president of the Melina Mercouri Foundation, responded. Dassin reminded Daley that the people and organizations struggling for the return of the Marbles deem it to be a noble cause, and admonished him for assuming that they had low motives. Marbles’ history Speaking on «the just demand for the return of the Marbles and the role of the media,» Kathimerini journalist Eleni Bistika made a moving account of the sculptures’ fate ever since Lord Elgin, then the British ambassador to Constantinople, hacked them off the Parthenon. Bistika recounted how an act of Parliament was passed so the British government could buy the sculptures for 35,000 pounds and then donate them to the British Museum. And she mentioned those who first expressed their opposition to the removal of the sculptures, from Byron and Cavafy to Melina Mercouri and the crusade she conducted from 1982. Professor Anthony Snodgrass, chairman of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Marbles, mentioned the possibility of harmonious cooperation, quoting the example of a piece of sculpture returned by the Palermo Museum and the Greek response. «Who won?» he asked. «Both sides.» Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, who opened the conference, had a proposal to make: «Let’s give the British Museum items of equal value from the National Archaeological Museum of Greece. Let’s not leave them completely bare. I don’t object to having the sculptures on loan, but I would prefer to get them [on a permanent basis].» The director of the British Museum has made it clear that Greece will never get the Marbles back, which makes the comments of his fellow countryman Professor William St Clair significant. Concerning the declaration that 18 museums signed in favor of returning the marbles, St Clair noted that the British Museum is a public institution and therefore accountable to Parliament and the people, and it cannot announce publicly that the sculptures will never return to Greece: «They are speaking on behalf of the United Kingdom,» he said.

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