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Global issue 20

The Parthenon was not just the temple of Athena, but at various points a mosque, a Christian church, even a fort and gunpowder store. The latter in particular may not have been very respectful of its heritage (even less so the Venetians who shelled it), but its accumulated cultural and historical significance is tied inextricably to its location, and cannot simply be translated to a London exhibition room. The second claim can be disproven even more easily: as is true of their Egyptian counterparts, there is no Greek desire to reclaim and hoard the treasures of its antiquity – only a few pieces, including the Parthenon metopes and frieze, have been requested. In fact the Greek government welcomes a diaspora of the country’s ancient artefacts. After all, the many thousands of objects, sculptures and architectural features located in museums around the world are testament to the enormous influence the Hellenistic tradition has had on civilisation, particularly Western civilisation. In the completed Acropolis Museum, there is a properly curated space for the marbles to return to. This museum has been a prestige project for Greece, and sits just across from the Theatre of Dionysus, underneath the Parthenon itself. It displays the portions of the metopes and friezes that were not removed by Lord Elgin, with the gaps variously filled in with photographs and casts – able substitutes but without the vivacious texture of the stone. The building is itself a significant achievement Arena Arts among museums: its glass fronts allow a direct and contextual view of the acropolis from almost every angle, and its support columns are arranged at the same distance as those of the temple. In late 2014, one of the pediment sculptures – the statue of Ilissos – became the first piece to leave the British Museum. While its temporary loan to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is encouraging in that it makes further future loans a possibility, it also stirred enough air to fan the political controversy for quite some time. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called it “an affront” and “a provocation” to Greece. In the UK, there was equal anger over the British Museum’s choice of partner – Russia, even if the Hermitage Museum does not speak for the regime of Vladimir Putin. There seems too great a disparity between giving a privilege such as a Parthenon sculpture to a country under sanctions, and by the same token refusing a country in serious need of an economic boost. Rather than appear as treasure hunters, here is an opportunity for the British Museum, and indeed Britain, to make good on an uncomfortable chapter of colonial history. However, given that the status quo is an ideal situation for the British Museum, there is no interest on its part to hold any discussion at all. Global’s inquiry on the matter received no response. A restitution on legal grounds is unlikely, but the Greek government has engaged several high-profile lawyers – most prominent among them Amal Clooney (wife of actor George Clooney) – to consider its options. Regardless of celebrity endorsement, the arguments on this side are simply more compelling. One certainly needn’t share Lord Byron’s disdain for Britain’s conduct on the matter – as he wrote in The Curse of Minerva: “a land of meanness, sophistry, and mist./ Each breeze from foggy mount and marshy plain/ dilutes with drivel every drizzly brain” – to wish to see one of Greece’s most sublime artistic achievements restored as fully as is possible. Unfortunately, structural damage done to the Parthenon, some of it by Elgin, as well as acid rain and air pollution, has made it impossible to return the marbles to the facade of the Parthenon. However, the Acropolis Museum has made it possible to view the marbles in the context of their original intended location, making this the opportune time for reunification and strengthening the hope that one day soon the work of Phidias will once again assume its full splendour. Until then, it is not just the city of Athens, or the Greeks, but anyone who cares for the world’s political, philosophical and cultural heritage who is the poorer for its absence. © Anastasios71 / Shutterstock global f i rst quar ter 2015 www.global -br ief ing.org l 65 © Paul B. Moore / Shutterstock


Global issue 20
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