Thirty years in the making, the 130 million euro New Acropolis Museum is a stunning, if controversial, addition to Athen’s famous architectural landscape and at the same time a provocative statement of intent by the Greek people. In a fascinating talk in Dublin last night, Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, President of the new museum took an enthralled audience on a tour of the history, architecture and intentions of the spectacular building.
The talk, entitled ‘Collections Present and Absent at the New Acropolis Museum, Athens‘ was hosted by the National Museum of Ireland, organised by the Irish Museums Association and was attended by the new Greek ambassador to Ireland, Her Excellency Ms. Constantina Zagorianou-Prifti.
The lecture was opened with some brief introductions, including a subtle assurance from the Director of the National Museum of Ireland that the Professor was amongst friends (an obvious reference to the repatriation controversy surrounding the famous Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in London). Finally Professor Pandermali, a short amiable man with greying hair, excellent English and a gift for public speaking took to the podium and began to take the audience on a tour through the history of the museum, and some of its major spaces and design features, stopping occasionally to note the empty spots left by artefacts not currently residing in Greece
Why Build a New Acropolis Museum?
The first topic considered was, appropriately, the question of origins. The building of such an expensive museum is a rare event and one with many motivations. So why did the Greeks decide to do it? The professor first explained why the original Acropolis Museum was constructed in the late nineteenth century; his contention being that it was built as a response to the damage caused by both the Turkish gunpowder explosion and later Lord Elgin’s ‘vandalism’ (certainly a primary motive for the building of the new museum). Perhaps a very modern perspective on nineteenth century motivations.
Whatever the reasons, the museum was almost immediately to prove not-fit-for-purpose. The discovery of an archaic-period Acropolis, pre-dating the classical one so visible today, with a wealth of sculptures and artefacts, meant that the museum was almost immediately too small to house the Acropolis finds. By the 1970s a decision had been made that all of the sculptures on the rock should be sheltered from the harsh Athenian elements. Clearly the old museum would not be able to accommodate them.
This made the need for a new museum, and a massive one at that (clearly too big to be situated on the Acropolis) very clear. A need further re-inforced by the campaign started in the 1980s for the return of sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the nineteenth century. The campaign was seriously undermined by the lack of a suitable venue in Greece for their preservation and presentation.
Some thirty years of arguments, controversy, architectural competitions and funding issues led eventually to the opening of the new museum earlier this year and a renewed and reinforced call for the return of the missing marbles.
A Quick Guided Tour
The next stage of the talk took us on a whistle-stop tour through some of the major spaces in the new museum. It truly is a stunning building with some genuinely new approaches to how museums should interact with the objects inside them as well as the cityscape around them and, in this case, the archaeology under them. Check out this interview with the architect, Bernard Tschumi, on how he approached the task of creating a home for the missing marbles.
During construction of the museum a large archaeological site was excavated, necessitating the balancing of the museum on top of 100 columns; delicately placed so as not to disturb the uncovered antiquities. The archaeological site can be viewed through transparent panels in the museum’s floor. Elsewhere in the museum transparent walls connect the museum with the city outside, in contrast to the traditional aim of museum architecture to create a sanctuary in which artefacts and art can be viewed in their own space.
This interaction with the outside world reaches its zenith in the Parthenon hall. Orientated parallel to the real thing, which can be clearly seen through the large windows (if only on one side of the hall), the room attempts to re-create the orientation and narrative effect of the original sculptures. Apparently the original intention was to leave voids for the exiled statues, metopes and friezes scattered around Europe, but the jarring effect of floating heads and limbs alongside the loss of the frieze’s narrative integrity led to the decision to fill the gaps with plaster copies of the missing pieces.
Other parts of the museum showcase some unorthodox but successful decisions. On the first floor, archaic period statues are displayed amongst large columns intended to evoke their original contexts and encourage movement through the room and around the sculptures. There is also a departure from the usual slavish adherence to chronology found in traditional museums. This allows the use of comparisons to illustrate sculptural styles and techniques. Finally, and one of my favourite elements of the museum, is the inclusion on the roof of the Parthenon hall of a ground plan of the Acropolis that can be seen by visitors to the rock looking down onto the new museum.
Re-unification of the Parthenon Frieze?
An underlying theme throughout the lecture was the spaces left in the museum for the marbles taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. Professor Pandermalis was careful to avoid talk of reclamation, or getting back the marbles.
Instead he framed the issue as one of re-unification and the restoration of the integrity of the original artists composition. He suggested that the marbles belong to the world, and particularly to Europe, serving as a unifying symbol of European civilisation which arent owned in a legal sense (since they cant in reality be bought or sold) but are really the cultural property of humanity.
This is surprisingly close to the view of the British Museum who also see the marbles as the property of humanity but who are adamant that their legal ownership is very real. The argument that the Parthenon marbles should be re-united is hard to fault but if they truly are the property of humanity it could almost be argued that the best place for them is in London: one of the most accessible and visited cities on the planet. Is there a case for the Greeks sending their remaining marbles over to London?
In reality the near future holds no hope of uniting the remaining marbles in either London or Athens. The professor visited Dublin as part of a tour of European cities which seems rather transparently to be a kind of canvassing drive to gain the support of other European countries for Greece’s goal of the ‘re-unification’ of the Parthenon sculptures. Appealing to modern European notions of unification and civilisation is certainly a clever tactic but despite Professor Pandermaliss entertaining and earnest efforts I think the wall will not come down for the Parthenon marbles for some considerable time. Still, at least we have one more spectacular museum in the world.
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