Has Athens Lost Its Marbles?
June 25, 2009
After years of delays and much embarrassment, the new Acropolis Museum has opened in Athens, Greece. Strangely, in the years since the Athens Olympics (for which the museum was intended but couldn’t be finished on time), Greece has slipped back into a decades-old pattern of cultural and architectural underachievement. For a civilization that is still revered as the crucible of Western art and ideas, this situation is at the very least disappointing. There has been some buzz going around that the new museum would remedy the vacuum, but don’t bet on it. Bernard Tschumi has designed a building that belongs in 1960s Miami Beach, not next to the most important historic site in the world. So far the Athenians haven’t liked it much.
More significantly, the Greek government has been fighting with the English government over the return of the Elgin Marbles, which are slated to be installed in the upper gallery of Tschumi’s kitschy jewel box. Just about every commentator has an opinion on which country ought to take care of these extraordinary sculptural metopes from the frieze of the Parthenon. There is even a new book about repatriation of national art treasures from the director of the Art Institute of Chicago that weighs in on the subject. If only the great temple itself, recently restored on the Acropolis, were ready to accept these priceless antiquities, the case would be simple. Unfortunately the choices being considered include a beautiful set of rooms in the British Museum, designed by John Russell Pope, or a sterile, technocratic grid of boxes in the Tschumi museum.
On the subject of repatriation, I can only say that I do not believe that so-called “national” works of art must necessarily be displayed in the nation or place where they were originally created. While in principle the nations and regimes that paid artists to create great works ought to have first claim to them, many situations exist in which the works have taken on new meanings in new venues, or which scholarly communities have studied and protected antiquities better in far-off institutions than in those of the home country. Moreover, the global and multicultural nature of contemporary society offers numerous ways in which to view and enjoy works of art. Placing them in contexts that may be original but not safe, as in the Baghdad museum debacle, is no more acceptable than lifting them illegally from their place of origin for sale on the open market. It is interesting to observe that the countries most adamant about the return of their treasures are those with the least confidence in their own political and cultural place in the world–Peru, Greece, and Italy come to mind.
The Parthenon metopes are quintessentially architectural scupltures that should not be divorced from their place at the top of the cella inside the peristyle of the temple. In the British Museum installation they are given a simulacrum that is very close to the original spatial arrangement, in a classical room. In Athens they will be given an alien, disjunctive installation next to a wall of glass that looks out on the Acropolis, as if to say “modernity has ripped you from your mother’s breast.” From an architectural standpoint, the British have honored the sculptures, while the Greeks have besmirched their beauty and uniqueness.
The crude and brutal Tschumi design for the Acropolis Museum muddies the waters in the controversy, which is perhaps why it has thus far generated so little comment, either positive or negative. On his website, the architect calls the building an “anti-Bilbao,” as if this comparison were germane to a cultural museum on a historic site. He has little or no understanding of the context in which he builds. Demitri Porphyrios, the Greek architect most capable of producing a distinguished work of architecture in the classical mode, was not asked to compete for the commission. Both the Acropolis’s stewards and their chosen architect have failed not only their city, but the entire world in providing a compelling setting for one of the greatest art works ever created.
Do the Parthenon metopes deserve “repatriation?” Yes, in a setting that does them justice. Does Athens deserve to have them after the Tschumi debacle? No.