Acropolis now

Walking through bright sunshine and crowds of tourists in an Athenian street, I glanced down and read the publicity blurb in my hand.

The story was there, contained in just a few words: “Museum mission: to house all the surviving antiquities from the Acropolis within a single museum of international stature.”

Actually the entire story is distilled into one word: ALL. But they might have added that it has been a 207-year mission to return the so-called Elgin Marbles—the first being cut down from the Parthenon on July 31 1801.

A little further up the road and both buildings are in sight: to my right, rising from a skirt of trees, is the knobbly hill of the Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon; to my left, behind some low buildings, is the new Acropolis Museum. The international stature of the Parthenon requires no words, but does this new museum live up to the lofty ambition?

And the big question: Does it have the requisite stature even when ALL the antiquities are not present—half of them are in London? The approach is promising.
Taking the steps up to the museum entrance, the ground to our left suddenly falls away to reveal archaeological excavations.

This is a part of ancient Athens dating back to the 5th century BC, an area contemporary with the construction of the Parthenon itself.

It was this discovery that delayed the project for so long, but the architect, Bernard Tschumi, solved the problem in spectacular style—by setting the building on more than 100 concrete pillars directly over the old city. Not only that but the floor of the museum is largely glass: wherever you walk on the lower and middle levels of the building, you have the sensation of walking through these ancient streets.

The illusion shatters only when you ascend to the upper floor where the marbles are kept.

The marbles, of course, are the raison d’etre for this $200-million project.

Here’s a quick recap of the situation. In 480BC the Persians invaded Greece and sacked the Acropolis, the hill that stands over the city of Athens and houses its sacred sites. A generation later the Athenians, led by Pericles, celebrated their city’s revival in fortunes by rebuilding the Parthenon, the temple to Athena in her virginal state.

The sculptor Phideas produced an astonishing stone frieze running for 166m around the architrave of the building—an artistic achievement of staggering size and quality, a distillation of what the first Greek democracy could produce.

The marble frieze survived the decline and fall of Hellenic culture, the Roman Empire, the Goths and the Ottoman Turks. It survived everything, until 1801, when the seventh Earl of Elgin arrived.

Armed with some dodgy paperwork, a chestful of baksheesh and several saws, Elgin had about half of the frieze cut off and shipped home, along with a multitude of other carvings and statues. His motivation was clear.

“My house in Scotland,” he wrote to his Athenian agent, “— offers me the means of placing, in a useful, distinguished, and agreeable way, the various things that you may perhaps be able to procure for me.”

Grand designs, indeed. Elgin was a DIY enthusiast, though an overspent one, and after much haggling the marbles were sold to the British Museum for £35 000 (about R527 000).

Finally the Greeks have hit upon a brilliant strategy: build a gigantic home for the marbles and all this extra Acropolis treasure, push it under the noses of the Trojans, sorry British, and wait for their hard hearts to be moved. So as I walked up to the upper floor of the new museum and stepped through the door, the question in my mind was: What if those hearts are not moved?

The first thing you see as you pass through that door is the Parthenon, rising up above the surrounding city and no further away than a hero could heave a discus.

Then you notice that the gallery runs around the central core of the building which has risen from the ground floor and is itself precisely the same dimensions as the Parthenon. It is on this core that the marbles are placed. About half are original and half are plaster copies, and this is far from ideal but nevertheless does give, for the first time in two centuries, a chance to see the whole of Phideas’s artistic achievement.

“The frieze is one narrative,” says Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, curator of the museum.

“It tells the story of the presentation of the most important Athenian feast to honour the goddess of the city, Athena.”

The visitor, for the first time, can stroll around the entire narrative of the frieze at eye-level, examining the detail. And there is plenty of detail. The British Museum misguidedly restored Elgin’s marbles in the 1930s, scouring away the natural weathered patina. Further sculptures in the museum, from the pre-480BC Acropolis, show signs of the original paint, miraculously preserved.

The new museum is undoubtedly going to be a huge tourist attraction. Its breathtaking design, with natural light flooding every corner, is a huge achievement in itself.—

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