Ancient History & Civilisation



On 20 June 2009 the new Acropolis Museum, designed by the Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, was opened. Located just 300 metres from the rock itself (across the street named after Dionysius the Areopagite, who was supposed to have been standing in the Parthenon on the day that Jesus was crucified), it contains most of the material discovered in the campaigns of excavation that turned the Acropolis from a dilapidated Ottoman garrison village into the bare archaeological site it is today. On display are the magnificent sculptures of the pre-classical age – the ‘smiling’ maidens of the sixth century BC and the puzzling remains of the early temples on the site (pp. 103–5) – as well as the caryatids from the Erechtheion, minus the one taken by Elgin (for which there is an empty space waiting in the line-up). But in pride of place, on the top floor, with a direct view across to the ruins of the building they once decorated, are the sculptures from the Parthenon. Here gleaming white plaster casts stand in for those in London and elsewhere – this clash of colour against the honey gold of the original marble being intended to remind us forcefully of what is not there.

The gala opening party did not come without controversy. There were disputes about the cost of the occasion (eventually reduced to a mere three million euros) and, of course, about the guest list. The event on 20 June was for heads of state and the A-list celebrities of the cultural, classical and museum world. There had been a party for the B-list a few days earlier, and some of those present on that occasion certainly felt that they had been invited to the wrong party. Neil MacGregor was on the A-list but could not, or did not, attend. Was this intended as a snub? Or had he been invited so late that he could not clear his diary – and so a snub the other way round? In his place Bonnie Greer, deputy chair of the trustees, playwright, critic … and black, went to represent the British Museum. It made a nice point about the Museum’s multicultural agenda in what was generally a very white celebration.

Prominent among the Greek hosts was the right-wing Culture Minister Antonis Samaras – a virulently nationalist politician, even by Greek standards. He was not going to call a truce, even for an evening, to celebrate the Museum’s opening. His speech focussed on the Elgin case:

We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts … We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in fifth-century Athens because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4000 kilometres away …

The abduction of these sculptures is not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world.

And these sentiments were echoed in the speech of the President of Greece. ‘It’s time’, he said, ‘to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.’

The rousing words were accompanied by an even more dramatic gesture. In front of the cameras, Samaras reinserted into its original place a sculpted head from one of the metopes, given back on temporary loan from the Vatican Museum – smiling as he did so, one critic observed, ‘like a child who had completed his first jigsaw puzzle’. Melina Mercouri would have deplored the politics of these men (she was as far to the left as they are to the right) – but she shared their commitment to the return of the marbles and would have admired their flair for theatrical spectacle. Prior engagement or not, MacGregor was perhaps wise to stay away.

The opening events attracted widespread publicity across the world. Television shows, radio programmes and newspaper articles took the bait laid by the Greeks. This wonderful new museum, many said, meant that no one now could possibly accuse Greece of having no appropriate place to display the Parthenon Marbles. With that last argument gone, they should be returned forthwith. The British, as Christopher Hitchens put it with characteristic bluntness, should finally cease ‘in their constipated fashion to cling to what they have so crudely amputated’.

The trouble was, that if you had never thought the argument was really about whether the Greeks had a good enough place to put the sculpture, then the opening of this new museum – wonderful though it may be – made not a blind bit of difference.


Some self-congratulation on the part of the Greek government was, in a way, understandable. After all, a new museum to house the material from the Acropolis had been planned for over thirty years; it had missed all kinds of promised deadlines (such as the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004); its progress had been delayed by over 100 legal disputes; one building project had even been aborted in the 1990s after construction work had already begun. Now, at last, the museum was open.

The original, nineteenth-century Acropolis museum had been a triumph of architectural modesty, nestling almost invisible just under the brow of the hill, only a few metres from the Parthenon. But, even with some enlargement after World War II, it was much too small, and could display only a fraction of the finds from the excavations on the rock. Plans for a new museum, near – but not actually on – the Acropolis, go back to the 1970s. Two local architectural competitions, in 1977 and 1979, failed to produce a winner. After a new international competition launched in 1989, a design by a firm of Italian architects (Nicoletti and Passarelli) was chosen for a museum to the south of the Acropolis, on the site where the Tschumi building now stands. This site has one major advantage. It is close to the Parthenon and offers stunning views of the temple. But it is relatively cramped (all the more so because it includes an old military hospital from the reign of King Otto, now an Acropolis Study Centre, that must be preserved). It is on the edge of the old, densely populated residential district of the city, known as Makriyianni – many of whose residents are very keen to preserve the character of their neighbourhood. And just below the surface lies an inconvenient richness of archaeological remains (inconvenient for new building developments, that is).

Nicoletti and Passarelli’s scheme involved a relatively low-rise structure. Towards the Acropolis it had a gently sloping façade – into which a large viewing area in the shape of an eye was inserted, as if to make the point about the visual relationship between museum and the ruins on the rock. But when work started on the foundations, substantial remains of the ancient and early medieval city of Athens were uncovered. These were significant enough to ensure the cancellation of the whole project – or at least significant enough to provide a convenient excuse for those who wished to see the end of the scheme for other reasons.

So yet another architectural competition was launched in 2000, with contestants from all over the world. The brief was to build a museum on the Makriyianni site, which would allow the preservation of the archaeological remains discovered on it, as well as not disrupting the old military hospital (in fact, the strict instructions were that the new building was not to be more than 5 metres taller than this old Athenian landmark). As for the Parthenon sculptures themselves, two crucial conditions were laid down: visitors should be able to view simultaneously the sculpture in the museum and (albeit from a distance, through glass) the ruins of the temple; and the arrangement of the sculptures within the museum was to reflect as far as possible their original layout on the monument.

Third prize in the competition went to a Greek architectural firm, Tombazis and Associates, with a proposal for a building with a dramatically sloping roof (from three storeys high at one end to almost ground level at the other), into which were set viewing platforms facing the Parthenon (Illustration 24). It was spectacular in making the roof of the building almost part of the museum itself, and – as the judges remarked – the sloping profile neatly served to make the whole structure feel comfortably smaller in an otherwise very built-up area. But it did not have quite the chutzpah of Daniel Libeskind’s second prize. Libeskind, best known for his Jewish Museum in Berlin, produced a striking plan for the museum in a ‘zig-zag’ structure (characteristic of much of his other work, and here almost enveloping the old hospital). But, inside, he flagrantly disregarded the instruction to reconstitute the sculptures according to their original arrangement. Libeskind’s argument seems to have been that the Parthenon sculptures have now transcended their original architectural context: they have become ‘masterpieces of art’. So he displayed them, as such, as individual pieces, not remotely linked to the original architectural frame. It won commendation from the judges, for its clever design, but a rap over the knuckles (and only second prize) for not playing by the rules.

The winning entry, by Bernard Tschumi – which cost 130 million euros to build and which opened only a few years late in June 2009 – seemed to tick every box.


Tschumi’s museum protects the archaeology underneath it, by being raised on forty-three columns above the ancient structures in the ground (the architect himself described the building as ‘floating’ above the remains below). Glass panels in the floors give visitors a glimpse through to what lies underneath – sometimes a vertiginous glimpse from the upper levels of the museum through several floors of glass. Laying the gallery out on four floors, Tschumi has managed to create almost ten times as much display space as there was in the old museum. The overall design concept is that the visitor walks (or takes the escalator) up through the museum, as if climbing up the slopes of the Acropolis. On the top level, the Parthenon gallery itself is at first slightly disorientating, for the whole of this floor is set at an angle to the building beneath (Illustration 27). But it turns out that it is carefully aligned with the Parthenon itself, dramatically visible outside the large windows (Illustration 25) – made up, the architect boasts, of 348 separate glass panels, in the latest, environmentally friendly glass technology. Here, following the design brief, the sculptures – including the plaster casts in place of those unavoidably absent – are arranged as they were on the original temple – and in exactly the same alignment, as if they had merely been transposed some 300 metres to the south.


24. The third prize in the architectural competition for the new museum was won by this design (by Tombazis and Associates). The top view shows its sloping silhouette behind the old military hospital. Below we see it ‘end on’. The controversial houses (pp. 197–8) are shown on the right.


25. The views to the Parthenon from the top gallery of the new museum. Vangelis’s house (pp. 197–8) here seems to blend into the scene – or, at least, from this level it does not obstruct the view of the temple.

The result is a layout of the sculpture that is much easier to read than the display in the Duveen Gallery. The ‘missing’ pieces are glaringly obvious, thanks to the substitutes in white plaster (Illustration 26). The pediments and metopes are shown in the ‘correct’ relationship to one another. And there is no need here to try to ‘turn the frieze inside out’, or to complete it in your mind’s eye, as any visitor to the British Museum must do (pp. 167–8). This is such a close replica of the layout of the original building that the frieze is in fact displayed around the outside of a structure, precisely the same dimensions as the internal chambers of the Parthenon itself; on the inside of this structure an information gallery is cunningly hidden, as well as the lavatories, lifts and access to the main stairway. Besides, in terms of a panoramic view, the top-lit (but otherwise window-less) gallery in London cannot even begin to compete.


26. The Parthenon gallery in the new museum has white plaster casts to take the place of the ‘missing’ sculptures, and to draw attention to their absence. Here we see a section of the frieze in plaster, though the occasional, darker, original panels stand out. On the other side of the wall that carries the frieze are the information gallery and various museum services.

That said, despite all those claims of damage done to the sculpture in the British Museum, many of the original panels seen in the glorious sunlight of the new museum do show signs of terrible erosion or defacement. Not all of this is due to the acid rain of Athens, which poured on many of the pieces before they were removed from the building. Much (perhaps most) of it, as drawings by early travellers show, had happened centuries before modern pollution took its toll, and is presumably to be put down to the hammers and chisels of early medieval Christians, effacing the remains of the building’s pagan past (pp. 55–7). But it all means that the sculptures in London seem, to the naked eye, to be in much better condition (indeed perhaps Elgin’s agents chose these piecesbecause they were better preserved).

Unsurprisingly, judgements on the new museum differ. It was hugely popular in its first few months of opening, with a million people visiting between June and October 2009 (though, as MacGregor would point out, still rather fewer than the British Museum, which attracts some 6 million a year). Not many of them have much good to say about the external appearance, and about its aggressive, architecturally self-indulgent, intrusion into an otherwise low-key neighbourhood. It has often been compared to an out-of-proportion car park, or – even less flatteringly – to ‘something flown in overnight from Chicago’, ‘the port authority terminal in Manhattan’ or, worse, ‘the police headquarters of a banana republic’. The interior has been much more consistently and justly admired: from the airy panorama it offers through its windows to the staggering play of levels and the vistas into the archaeological excavation below. The worst you could say is that the combination of concrete, glass and escalators is faintly reminiscent of an airport terminal – a feeling that is only confirmed by the presence of something called a ‘VIP Lounge’ on the floor beneath the Parthenon gallery itself.


27. Many visitors and architectural critics feel that Tschumi’s new museum intrudes aggressively into its neighbourhood. But it has some clever touches. The top floor is set at an angle to the rest of the building, to make it exactly parallel with the remains of the Parthenon itself on the Acropolis.


The Parthenon is never far from controversy, and it is not only the architectural style of the new museum that has provoked debate. One long-running battle has raged over a pair of large early twentieth-century houses that stand on the road (at numbers 17 and 19 Dionysius the Areopagite Street) between the museum and the rock. Both of these are architecturally distinguished elements in the streetscape: number 17 is a tremendous art deco structure, designed by Vassilis Kouremenos, a friend and associate of Picasso; number 19 is a rather more sober neo-classical style. In fact, one of the minor clauses in the museum design brief was that these houses (like the old military hospital) were to be preserved.

The trouble is that they get in the way of the view from the museum to the Parthenon – not from the top floor, which is high enough for visitors easily to see over them, but from the restaurant on the floor below (where the museum authorities presumably hoped people would pay to take a leisurely lunch in the shadow of the ruins). So in 2007, as a clear signal that demolition was in prospect, the ‘listed building’ status of both houses was removed, and the National Archaeological Council indicated that it was prepared to agree to remove them – to make a better ‘visual combination’ of the museum and Acropolis across the street.

But they had not reckoned either with the strength of local feeling or with the fact that number 19 was owned by Greece’s most famous living composer – the wealthy, influential and reclusive Vangelis Papathanisiou, who won an Oscar for the theme tune to the movie Chariots of Fire. Petitions were organised. Vangelis mobilised his contacts (Jack Lang, then French culture minister on a visit to Athens, put in a word on the houses’ behalf) and a carefully orchestrated PR campaign in defence of the houses began. Some of it played on themes strangely reminiscent of the campaign for the return of the marbles from London, with its plea for the unity of the monument. ‘A street is like a smile,’ said one local architect. ‘When teeth are removed, empty spaces ruin its beauty.’

It worked. In 2009 the Greek Supreme Court re-instated the protection of the houses as ‘listed buildings’. And plans are under way to find some effective way of landscaping the back of them (which even Vangelis admits are not especially attractive) to enhance the view from the museum – whether with trees, a wall or video installation.

But other controversies about the museum display were much more directly related to the disputed history of the Parthenon itself. The most prominent of these (or the biggest storm in a teacup) concerned a film animation made by the Greek-born film-maker Constantin Costa-Gavras, on the building’s history, from 3000 BC to the nineteenth century; a version of an animation originally made for the 2004 Olympics, it was used as an information video in the new museum. Almost half of this short film showed the depredations of Elgin’s men, hacking at the Parthenon and dropping precious sculptures to the ground, against a sound track of Lord Byron’s invectives on Elgin. But a very short earlier sequence (dated in a subtitle to the fifth century AD) showed men in black robes, who looked for all the world like Greek Orthodox priests, equally violently smashing those sculptures on the temple that were most offensive to Christian sensibilities.

The story was that senior officials of the Orthodox church objected to this portrayal of their attitude to Greek cultural heritage. The museum authorities insisted that the offending sequence was only twelve seconds long, and that in the fifth century AD long black robes were not worn exclusively by Orthodox priests. None the less, backed or urged by Samaras, they removed the scene from the film – until protests from Costa-Gavras himself and demonstrators against censorship outside the museum secured its reinstatement. It was never actually clear whether the Orthodox church had officially complained or not, or whether the whole controversy was not much more than media invention.


Bad arguments, like good ones, come and go. The Parthenon controversy continues because it reflects a real and important conflict about the role of cultural heritage, the responsibility for the classical past and the function of symbolic monuments. Like it or not, the case on both sides is powerful; otherwise the dilemma would have been resolved long since. No one could deny the coherence and appeal of having all the sculpture from the Parthenon in one place. But it is equally clear that after 200 years the Elgin Marbles have a history that roots them in the British Museum as well as in Athens; and that history cannot simply be unwritten by a well-meaning gesture of ‘restitution’ or ‘reunification’. No one could deny that a special connection has developed between the Parthenon and the Greek nation. But, at the same time, classical culture and its symbols have for centuries transcended national boundaries. As the then British Minister for the Arts said, albeit slightly ponderously, in his evidence to the 2000 Select Committee: ‘ I understand the emotional importance … to the Greek people of this case. I would also say with respect that we too in this country are heirs to the classical tradition. I would say that the diffusion of the classical culture of ideas, values and of physical relics and monuments over two millennia, has contributed in profoundly important ways to the history that has led to the emergence of the world that we have. It seems to me unthinkable that we should wish to reverse that process.’

But the bottom line, despite the brave claims to the contrary, is always the issue of ownership. To whom does the Parthenon belong? Masterpieces in other media can escape this impasse. Shakespeare, after all, can belong to, and be performed by, everyone in the world, as well as having a special link with Stratford-upon-Avon. The sense in which he ‘belongs’ to Stratford does not deprive anyone else of their own engagement with the bard and his work. The same would be true of Mozart and Vienna. Buildings are different. And the Parthenon raises that difference in an acute form. The debate that surrounds the Elgin Marbles forces us to face the unanswerable question of who can, and should, own the monument. Does it count as the possession of all those who would love to see themselves as the inheritors of the values of fifth-century Athens? Or those whose capital city it dominates? Can a single monument act as a symbol both of nationhood and of world culture?

Inevitably, then, the Parthenon and its sculpture have come to stand for deracination, dismemberment, desire and loss. Freud was more astute than we first imagined when he wondered if the Parthenon really did exist at all, in Athens or anywhere else for that matter. For the Parthenon is always ‘somewhere else’. If not entirely absent, it is never wholly present. Like Byron and his followers we may weep at the thought. But it is partly that sense of loss, absence and desire that now gives the monument its cultural power and urgency. Paradoxically, its status as international icon can hardly be disentangled from its diaspora that so many of us lament. Not just from Athens to London, but from Uppsala to Rome, Nashville to Paris, the Parthenon is literally a wonder of the world.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!