The "Ghost Marbles"


The New Acropolis Museum is nearing completion (it may open in 2008), and it is attempting to make a powerful statement about where the parthenon/elgin marbles belong. The museum was due to be finished in time for the summer olympics in 2004, but a number of delays have pushed back completion. It seems some of the sculptures will be displayed, while the missing pieces will have plaster copies displayed behind a gray screen. Sharon Waxman visited the new museum this week and included some pictures, including this one. Here’s an excerpt:

[Dimitris] Pandermalis, [President of the new museum] intends to exhibit the frieze of the Parthenon, with the actual sculptures at the height shown here, and with plaster casts of the many friezes still at the British Museum behind a grey scrim. You can’t help thinking of that as another deliberate gesture, and as the scrim as a kind of shroud. Pandermalis, however, is anything but emotional. “It’s the pride of the nation,” he says quietly. “But I prefer to be silent on the issue.”

Interesting stuff, and I have no doubt the image of the parthenon in the distance, along with the shrouded missing pieces will act as a powerful symbol. Lee Rosenbaum also talks about a recent presentation Pandermalis gave in New York:

But during a recent slide presentation in New York—showing the current appearance of the new museum, as well as renderings of what it will look like when it opens (possibly in late 2008)—Dimitris Pandermalis…revealed a new approach to the problem of the missing marbles. Instead of an empty space, the slide showed an image of one of the Greek-owned marbles chockablock with a copy of the British-owned slab that would have originally been beside it on the façade of the Parthenon. Together, they completed the relief of a horse. So that there would be no confusion between the original and the copy, the latter was veiled by a scrim, making it appear like a “ghost,” as Pandermalis put it.

Whether this shifts the position of the British Museum will be interesting to see. I wonder if all of the missing pieces will be “Ghosted” or if its just the pieces held by the British Museum. After all, bits and pieces of the Acropolis are scattered all over Europe. Also, what is the rationale for only shading the marbles in the hands of others, what about the destruction when the Acropolis basically exploded when the Venetians landed a direct hit on the powder magazine in the 17th Century?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Recent Repatriations and the Parthenon Marbles


The TimesOnline had an article last week by Ben Macintyre tying in the recent repatriations and criminal trials in Italy and Greece to the Parthenon Marbles (or the Elgin Marbles as they are often referred to). Here’s an excerpt:

The return to Greece of a spectacular Macedonian gold wreath from the 4th century BC may lead to the repatriation of several looted artefacts worth millions of pounds.

Court cases in Italy and Greece are increasing the pressure on museums around the world and could lead to widespread changes in the handling of ancient treasures.

The campaign to return stolen work to its country of origin has emboldened Costas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister of Greece, to predict that Britain will soon be forced to surrender the Elgin Marbles. Also at stake are hundreds of statues, bronzes, engravings and other artworks from museums in Europe, the US and Japan.

At the heart of this revolution is the landmark case of the funerary wreath, one of the most beautiful surviving examples of ancient craftsmanship, which was looted from Greece more than ten years ago. A delicate spray of gold leaves interwoven with coloured glass paste, the wreath was probably designed as a funeral gift and made soon after the death of Alexander the Great.

It was put on display in Greece for the first time this week after a long campaign to persuade the J. Paul Getty Museum, in California, to return it to its homeland.

Mr Karamanlis welcomed its return as evidence that Britain would soon be forced to relinquish the Elgin Marbles, which were acquired by the British diplomat Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1810 and are currently housed in the British Museum. Britain has argued that they are better preserved in London (continue reading).

These repatriations are an important step, and are an example of stronger action by both Greece and Italy. However, the Vatican is expected to announce that it will refuse to return some fragments of the Parthenon. Parts of the Parthenon are spread all over Europe, including London, Rome, Copenhagen, Berlin.

I was at the British Museum a few weeks ago, and I was reminded how impressive the sculptures still are, even though they are broken and decontextualized. It would be very exciting to see all of the sculptures collected in Athens for display. However, people all over Europe can view parts of them at present, and there is a value in that as well I suppose. In the end, I seriously doubt whether the British Museum will ever relinquish the marbles.

The case for their return seems much different from the gold wreath which the Getty just returned and from the trial of Marion True. The argument for their return is only ethical or moral, there is no legal claim to them which Greece could hope to assert.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Greek Archbishop asks Pope Benedict for a piece of the Acropolis

I missed this last week, but Greek Archbishop Christodoulos, in his first official visit to the Vatican, asked Pope Benedict XVI to return a piece of the Parthenon currently housed in the Vatican Museums. Benedict was initially confused by the request, perhaps because he was not aware of the piece. The Pope said he would consider the request. The push is part of an ongoing Greek effort to seek the return of the various pieces of the Parthenon. A comment on this blog last week suggested that Greece is trying to work slowly, and regain the smaller pieces first, from sources which might be more inclined to Greece’s requests. The idea makes sense, and is probably the best strategy for Greece to pursue. If they can gather momentum from all of these smaller bits and pieces, perhaps pressure will mount on the British Museum to return their Parthenon sculptures. It’s an interesting strategy, but I’m not sure anything can be done to persuade the British Museum to relinquish the marbles.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

UN General Assembly Adopts a Greek Cultural Property Resolution


Earlier this week, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by Greece on “The Return or Restitution of Cultural Property to their Countries of Origin”. The resolution lacks any real bite, as most resolutions of the General Assembly are symbolic in nature. However, it does indicate continued pressure by the Greeks on foreign nations to seek the return of Greece’s cultural property. Most notably, the Parthenon sculptures, or Elgin marbles as they are often referred to in the UK.

The Greek culture minister, George Voulgarakis hailed the initiative as “an exceptionally important event”. Discussing the Parthenon Marbles, he said “The adoption of this resolution in itself signals and guides the countries to help so that the antiquities from all over the world will return to their homes. Greece will always seek and strive, in that direction, for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful place”.

A great deal has been written about the Parthenon Marbles, and whether they should remain in the UK, or return to Greece. One noted scholar in this field, John Merryman, has argued that the sculptures should stay in the British Museum, because they have been resting there peacefully for nearly 200 years. The debate is an emblematic one in many ways for the two primary schools of thought on cultural policy, the cultural nationalists and internationalists. This discussion by the Greek minister of culture seems an effort to try to continue to pressure the UK into returning the sculptures. Perhaps he is learning some lessons from the Italians and their aggressive recent efforts at repatriation, though I think forcing the British Museum to share some or all of the sculptures will truly be a herculean task.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com