For many years, Britain has argued that it possessed the legal right to keep the Elgin Marbles, one of the world’s most desired artistic objects. Although it’s hard to say what a private collector might pay for the Marbles, so-named after the man who took them, it’s not hard to say that a private collector will never ever get their hands on them. But another argument proffered by lawyers and scholars alike has been that even if Greece did have rights in the Marbles, or even if Britain absconded with them illegally, Greece does not have the facilities or the stability to hold on to the Marbles safely.
Those days are over.
With the construction of the New Acropolis Museum, the claim has lost its strength. The creep of the European Union was perhaps the death knell, but the Museum means Britain has but one leg left to stand on. ( I am, quite frankly, neutral, since I have not really delved into the issue. ) In an article in the New York Times (“Where Gods Yearn for Long-Lost Treasures“), Nicolai Ouroussoff writes:
When this museum in Athens opens next year, hundreds of marble sculptures from the old Acropolis museum alongside the Parthenon will finally reside in a place that can properly care for them. […] by fusing sculpture, architecture and the ancient landscape into a forceful visual narrative, the New Acropolis Museum delivers a revelation that trumps the tired arguments and incessant flag waving by both sides. It’s impossible to stand in the top-floor galleries, in full view of the Parthenon’s ravaged, sun-bleached frame, without craving the marbles’ return.
Indeed, this article is at its weakest when it decries Lord Elgin’s theft as robbing meaning from the Marbles:
In dismantling the ruins of one of the glories of Western civilization, Lord Elgin robbed them of their meaning. The profound connection of the marbles to the civilization that produced them is lost.
If Lord Elgin had succeeded in robbing them of their meaning, the following would be true: Britain wouldn’t care in the least about them. No one else would care about them. They wouldn’t be worth nearly as much. We wouldn’t be having this discussion or this New Acropolis Museum, or these articles in the New York Times. Rather, it’s precisely because the opposite is true: Lord Elgin distended the meaning, added meaning, and for better or for worse, stretched it across a continent. The Marbles mean much more in their absence from the Acropolis to Greece, and much more to those who have gotten to see it from their perch of safety in Britain.
Thankfully, Mr. Ouroussoff’s article is not full of hyperbolic statements. He makes for a very convincing tour guide through the New Acropolis Museum:
The entire floor is wrapped in glass so that you can gaze at the surrounding city. The genius lies in how the room snaps disparate sculptural and architectural fragments into their proper context. You first enter the south side of the gallery, where the museum’s friezes and metopes will be seen against the chalky backdrop of the rooftops of Athens. As you turn a corner, the Parthenon comes into full view; the ancient temple hovers through huge windows to your right. The eastern facade of the Parthenon and the sculptures that once adorned it unite in your imagination, allowing you to picture the temple as it was in Periclean Athens. Eventually you descend through a sequence of smaller galleries, where the glories of the High Classical period gradually give way to Roman copies of Greek antiquities. The Parthenon fades from view.
It’s a magical experience. Rather than replicating or simply echoing the Classical past, Mr. Tschumi engages in a dialogue that reaches across centuries.
In the end, the biggest consequence is that the completion of the museum may win over many of the persuasive skeptics of Greece’s ability to handle the Marbles with safety. I believe it is unlikely that Britain will part with them, but they might, and if they do, it will be because Greece continues to play its cards well.