Acropolis Museum reignites Marbles debate

For Cambridge University Classics Professor Mary Beard, the Parthenon Marbles aren’t just a historical treasure; they’re a life-changing event. Seeing the famed pieces of Acropolis sculpture in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery at age 5, Beard says, was «gobsmacking» – one of the things that influenced her to devote her life to the study of the ancients. No surprise then that Beard – the well-known author of the 2002 book «The Parthenon» – was among a crowd of academic, artistic and political luminaries descending on the New Acropolis Museum for a series of invitation-only inaugural events that began on Wednesday with a tour for arts correspondents and the Greek media. Greek officials have been meticulous about the proceedings: allotting four days for the events and inviting a long list of international guests, while framing the opening of the museum as an opportunity to cement public support for the stance that the Marbles – unceremoniously transported to the United Kingdom by British Ambassador Lord Elgin in the early 19th century – should be returned to the Acropolis. Divisive But for several people with a stake in the new museum’s opening who spoke to Kathimerini English Edition in the past week, the issue remains divisive. And even Beard, a lifelong admirer of the Marbles who was set to attend an event yesterday evening for scholars and various supporters of the sculptures’ restitution, said she hadn’t been convinced either way on the issue. «I’m not in favor of sending [the Marbles] back, I’m not in favor of keeping them,» Beard said from her home in Britain earlier this week. «I don’t think there’s many of us in the world like me who are actually on the fence about this… we sit extremely uncomfortably on the fence, the enemy of both sides, looking and wondering about the arguments.» Such sentiments are hardly in keeping with the wishes of the Greek Ministry of Culture, which, in online materials documenting the «official Greek position» on the Marbles, lists an excerpt from a 2004 interview with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis forecasting consensus in favor of the sculptures’ return. «We are dedicated to our goal, the return of the Marbles,» the interview reads. «We feel optimistic that in the end, even the most doubtful will be convinced, and will change their attitude toward the matter.» Converts Undoubtedly, the new museum has won some converts. When Athens-born Oxford historian Angelos Chaniotis made his first trip to London to see the Marbles in the 1980s, he did not believe they should be returned to Greece. Fresh from the clutches of a military dictatorship, the country lacked the infrastructure to make the display of the sculptures a viable priority, he said. Pollution, lack of restorative efforts on the Acropolis, and limited funding for necessary archaeological research elsewhere in the country were all concerns. And the old Acropolis museum, Chaniotis said, «was not adequate for the Marbles.» But from the outset the new facility promised better, he said. «When it was clear that a very good museum was going to be built, I felt that there was absolutely no reason not to support every effort to return the Marbles there,» said Chaniotis, who planned to attend inaugural events this week. «The New Acropolis Museum is much better in every way than the British Museum in terms of display and research possibilities – it is in every respect the better environment for the exhibition.» Others have been less quick to acknowledge the new museum’s ability to change the discourse on the Marbles. The British Museum, which planned to send two representatives to the inaugural celebration according to spokeswoman Hannah Boulton, maintained last week that it would not relinquish the sculptures, new museum or no. «[The museum] doesn’t alter our view that the sculptures in the Museum’s collection should remain here as part of the unique overview of world cultures that the British Museum exists to present,» Boulton wrote in a statement to Kathimerini English Edition last week. Add to that the fact that the new museum, a decidedly modern structure delayed for years partly by concerns over how its design would fit with its surroundings, has its detractors on the home front. Detractors «It’s certainly a functional venue,» said Ioannis Petropoulos, a classics professor at the Democritus University of Thrace and chairman of Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece. «But its appearance is highly controversial, and I along with many think it’s a monstrosity out of proportion and out of tune with its surroundings, both the local architecture and the physical landscape.» The new building, Petropoulos said, should not lead to the prioritization of further contention about the Marbles at the expense of other efforts like revamping Greece’s classical education system and improving archaeological and display practices in areas more provincial than Athens. Modern Salamis, site of a naval battle that «changed the course of human history» in 480 BC, is now little more than a «dumping ground,» Petropolous said, pointing to sites away from the Sacred Rock that deserve the nation’s attention. Re-education «Charity begins at home, so let’s get more professional, more scholarly at the provincial level and let’s re-educate the Greeks about the Parthenon,» he said. «I’m sure very few Greeks actually know the names of the individual buildings on the Acropolis. Ask a typical Greek high school student when it was built, who built the Acropolis, how do you spell ‘Parthenon,’ and I’m sure many people will be nonplussed.» But for now, with all eyes trained on the Acropolis, and a third-floor display space in the new museum reportedly waiting for the receipt of the Marbles, the debate over their location seems destined to end no time soon. Beard, for one, has no problem with that – calling the Marbles controversy «one of the most interesting cultural debates going on at the moment» and citing its value for the worldwide discourse on the ownership of historical artifacts. «There are all sorts of conflicts that are really dangerous ones, and this isn’t one of them,» she said, chuckling. «The worst they could do is drop a block on somebody.»