It was a spectacular sight by all accounts. A huge mass of marble covered with protective white material was raised from the top of one of the most well known rock tops in the world, the rock of Akropolis, some 165 meters above sea level, and was gently lowered down a few hundred meters away, at the entrance of the newly inaugurated Museum of Acropolis. With all Museum officials, politicians and TV cameras watching, that gentle operation by an intricate system of enormous aerial cranes was the first of a series of delicate removing jobs of the fragile statutes of Parthenon to their new house. A much delayed and complicated project which was finally completed this year.The amorphous wrapped up marble mass successfully touched the ground and when it was unwrapped by the anxious technicians, it revealed its wonderful self: It was one of the six Karyatids, the tall beautiful marbled women almost 3 meters high, who were placed instead of columns to support the porch of the Temple of Erechtheum around 430 BC. The removal of one of the Karyatids two weeks ago from the Erectheum Temple, where it stood for almost 2,500 years, had a strong political meaning for the Greek government.
It was meant to show to the rest of the Western world and particularly to the British, that Greece managed at last to have a large, sophisticated, highly-tech museum which could be compared to any of its great rivals. Designed by the renowned Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, this museum, only a few hundred meters from the Akropolis rock, was meant to shut the mouths of the officials of the British Museum who are holding tight to one part of the architectural treasures of the Akropolis rock – the decorative marble friezes that used to surround the prime monument, the Parthenon. The Parthenon Marbles plus one of the six Kayatids, that are now housed in the Lord Duveen Hall in the British Museum in London, were actually removed by a Scottish aristocrat, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord of Elgin, to decorate his mansion in Elgin.
Lord Elgin, was ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul in 1800s thanks to an Imperial Firman by the Sultan. He then sold the pieces to the British state for an enormous amount of money and since then these wonderful pieces are displayed in the British Museum.When the official demand for the return of the Marbles was put forward in the early 80s by the then minster of culture, actress Melina Mercouri, the official response by the British Museum was that Greece did not have a proper museum to house them and that Athens was too polluted city to be able to receive back such pieces that constitute world heritage.
The Greek side argued that nobody can split up integral monuments of cultural heritage especially when they belong to one nation’s culture. In other words, if you wanted to enjoy the Parthenon, you should not have to stop over in London. Or for that matter, if you wanted to enjoy the Temple of Pergamum, you should not have to stop over in Berlin. When the new Acropolis Museum opened this year, there was a glimpse of hope that Greece might be able to convince the British Museum to send some of the marble pieces to Athens, at least the one Karyatid who welcomes the millions of visitors on the ground floor of the museum. In fact during his government’s last term, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis kept the portfolio of the Ministry of Culture just to show the importance he gave to the initiatives on cultural affairs. On the top of his agenda, was the New Acropolis Museum.
A ‘no’ again
The answer from the British Museum was once again negative. As the spokeswoman of the museum declared last Friday, “although the new Museum of Acropolis is a great success, this does not change in the slightest the position of the British Museum. For us the issue was never related to the way the sculptures were displayed in Athens, but it had to do with the ideological argument that the British Museum displays works from all world cultures and that the Parthenon sculptures are a very important part of this collection. The British Museum believes that it has the ideological right to keep the Marbles on the basis of its mission which is to present works of all cultures not only the ones that are found in London, by borrowing them.” That was a blow but not a surprise. As I was part of that committee that was set up in London during the mid 80s as a pressure group for the return of the crudely separated pieces of the Parthenon, I can remember very well the arguments of the British Museum then. Then, it was the lack of a proper museum. Now it is the “ideological right” of one of the greatest museum of the world to display any piece belonging to other cultures whether this arrives ate their door through legal or illegal means. This is called “long term borrowing.” And whether we like it or not this peculiar rule of cultural estate agency procedure is the main reason why the so called great museums of the world have managed to dominate over national cultures.