Monday, 27 December 2010

While waiting for the marbles

The new Acropolis Museum looks like a huge meteorite that fell in the middle of a densely built area. It is not easy to appreciate the building from the exterior, it lacks a ‘respiration’ zone around it. As we are approaching, getting different views of the various volumes that compose it, we could even say that this is a strange and ugly object, arrogantly imposing itself in the space where it is inserted.

On the other hand, this work by swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, in collaboration with greek architect Michael Photiadis, conquers us unconditionally the moment we are inside it. This is not a building that overlaps the objects it is supposed to exhibit. On the contrary, it seems that every space was conceived considering the specific pieces it was going to receive. The views of the underground excavation (through the glass floor) are frightening (due to the height) and impressive. The main corridor that takes us to the exhibition – called “the slopes of Acropolis” – gives us the impression that we are indeed part of the procession that is heading up in order to deliver the offerings to the temple of goddess Athena. In the room of the archaic period we enter a garden of statues, solemn, smiling, somehow sad. Beautiful.
Photo: Aris Messinis (Agence France-Press)
The whole of the third and last floor is dedicated to the Parthenon. Luminous, graceful, with a direct and glamorous view to the Acropolis and the Parthenon, it has the exact dimensions of Athena´s temple. The majority of the objects exhibited here are plaster copies of the original frieze and metopes, today at the British Museum in London.


The battle for the restitution of the originals to Greece is part of a larger discussion, at international level, about the restitution of antiquities to their countries of origin (although the term ‘countries’ in this context might not be the most accurate). Apart from Greece, countries like Italy, Egypt, Peru, Nigeria, Ethiopia and others, are asking American, british, French, german museums to return pieces they consider that they form part of their cultural heritage, promoting them at times as national symbols, objects of national pride.

This seems to be a battle between nationalist states and universal museums. In December 2002, eighteen museums (all of them north american and european) signed a Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. Condemning the illicit traffic of archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects, they consider, nevertheless, that objects acquired a long time ago (they do not specify how long) should be seen in the light of different sensibilities and values, reflective of that earlier era. These objects, one reads in the declaration, are today part of the museums that cared for them and made them available to an international audience. They do not belong to the citizens of one nation, but to the people of every nation. In 2008, James Cuno´s controversial book Who owns antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage came to defend the universal museums. Cuno says that these museums should have the freedom to acquire antiquities even when they are of uncertain origin, in order to prevent them from falling into the obscurity of private collections, not allowing the great museums to fulfil their mission of educating the public about various cultures, exhibiting objects from all periods and all continents.

Two of the most balanced reviews of James Cuno´s book were written by Tom Flynn and archaeologist Colin Renfrew. Flynn criticizes the universal museums´ patronizing and colonial vision. He stresses the fact that all those who contributed with texts are directors of north American museums (with the exception of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum), as well as the lack of reference regarding the relationship north American and European museums should foster with other countries, the museums of which are not mentioned in the book (read the full article here). Renfrew, on the other hand, criticizes Cuno for claiming a freedom without regulation, without any diligence, for universal museums in acquiring antiquities and supports the need to establish codes and clear acquisition policies at an international level (read the full article here).

This is a much vaster and complex discussions, that goes much beyond the limits of the summary written here. The arguments of both sides deserve to be analyzed with attention and objectivity. In the meantime, and without wanting to oversimplify a complex issue, I would say that I am not afraid that the claims for the restitution of certain objects will leave the so-called universal museums empty, not allowing them to pursue and fulfil their mission, as it is feared by their supporters. The claims are very specific and they are not about each and every object in those museums´collections.

When I look at the Parthenon I see an amputated monument. I believe that the originals of the frieze and metopes should be returned, since the necessary conditions for their care are guaranteed. Returned not to Greece and to the Greeks, but to their natural context, historical and cultural, in order to be appreciated by citizens of the whole world, to whom they belong.

Outras referências Elginism
The Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles Articles by Kwame Opoku in Modern Ghana
Who draws the borders of culture? (Article by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times of May 5, 2010) The Medici conspiracy: The illicit journey of looted antiquities - From Italy´s tomb raiders to the world´s greatest museums (Book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini)

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