Acropolis Museum, 18 May 2012
The forecourt of the beautiful Acropolis Museum is suspended over the remains of ancient buildings, so it imparts a sense of great historical significance before we even enter the building. Visitors follow a path through a sequence of galleries, beginning with the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis, which itself gently slopes upwards. At the top of the slope is the staggeringly rich Archaic Gallery. Here are the remains of the archaic Parthenon, and all that was buried after the burning of the Acropolis by the Persians in 480 BC. The main room contains many korai and other votive offerings; I particularly liked the Μοσχοφόρος (calf-bearer, c. 570 BC) – a man carrying a content-looking calf to sacrifice: it reminded me of Picasso’s L’Homme au mouton, but a very different style. Picasso’s lamb was sketched, then cast in bronze in 1943 in occupied Paris. The archaic calf is the very image of the assenting sacrifice victim, an implicit blessing of the rite that will see its death. The war-time lamb is an image of struggle, dissent, and anguish, but the construction of the two sculptures reaches across the centuries to each other.
The museum route then leads to the Parthenon Gallery, but before encountering the frieze, metopes and pediment sculptures, we are encouraged to watch a short film about the Parthenon (it was nice to sit down, too). The texts in the gallery and the commentary in the film do not mince words when discussing Elgin and ‘his crew’. Upon entering the Parthenon Gallery proper, the reason behind the sniping language is clear. The museum is designed so that the angle of the top floor is parallel with the Acropolis itself, and is glass from about three feet from the floor to the very high ceiling. Visitors are thus encouraged to observe the Parthenon through the great windows, and then turn around to see the sculptures. It is an undoubtedly powerful experience. Duplicates of the British Museum’s collection are pointedly flagged up; some remains are also in the Louvre, and one or two other places. When I first heard about the new Acropolis Museum, and how part of the intention was to ‘shame’ the British Museum into returning the Parthenon Sculptures that it keeps, I thought that such an emotional appeal was a whimsical idea. Once, when I voiced this opinion, I was mocked for preserving a stereotypical British John Bull mentality, but I countered that it was purely sentimental to hope for the re-unification of all the surviving pieces. On my last visit to the British Museum, in April 2011, I had been persuaded to support the sculptures’ retention in London. The ‘Elgin Marbles’ are a part of the world’s shared history, and the British Museum – relic of Empire as it is – should not be compelled to whitewash the sins of the past, but should be encouraged to present the nation’s plunder in as unbiased a manner possible in a state-funded institution. The portion in London tells the story not only of the Greek collective genius, but of the accidents, follies and arguments of the intervening two and a half thousand years. This was my reasoning: that to attempt to recreate a fixed point in the past risks wiping the history – however regrettable or dispicable – of the intervening time. The Acropolis Museum completely reversed that attitude: it presents the sculptures so perfectly in its context that it indeed puts the British Museum’s Parthenon gallery to shame. But there are two levels of argument: the rational or political argument is the one that the British Museum deploys, and, in its documents and public statements, it ties complex legal and pedantic knots. What fails to be acknowledged in public often enough is the real threat of the precedent that the return of the Parthenon sculptures would set. If the British Museum returned everything it has acquired by dubious or dishonourable means (aware of the anachronism of applying today’s standards to historical transactions), it would be largely empty. Art should not attempt to join rational arguments, though – it need only appeal to emotions: something that the present Athens museum does amply.