Friday, June 19, 2009

The New Acropolis Museum & the "Elgin Marbles"--Sneak Peek!

(click on the photos to enlarge)

Today, Friday morning, as I walked out of the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Constitution Square in Athens I saw that metal detectors and guard ropes were set up in the hotel lobby and a crowd of police and secret service types outside were screening those who enter. This is because eight heads of state and various church dignitaries are expected to arrive at the GB today and tomorrow for the ceremonies surrounding the opening of the new Acropolis Museum on Saturday.

But last night, Thursday the 18th, Nick and I were lucky enough to attend an opening party at the new museum. About 280 people—mostly Greeks from Athens, I think—got to attend a sort of dress rehearsal. It was completely thrilling and moving and certainly the best Museum party I’ve ever attended. Thanks to the photos I took with my little digital camera, I’m able to give you a look at it all ahead of the foreign and domestic press, who are invited to do it all tonight (Friday). Then on Saturday will be the official opening with the heads of state and their bodyguards.

I realize the world press has already printed a lot of words and photos about the new museum because of the controversy over the “Elgin Marbles” which will move into high gear this weekend. Books have been written on this subject but to tell it in a nutshell — back in the early 1800’s when Greece was still suffering under its 450-year occupation by the Turks, British diplomat Lord Elgin got permission from the Turks to chop about half of the priceless sculptures by Phidias off the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon and cart them back to his estate in England. This act of desecration gave him bad karma leading to personal, physical and economic disasters (he lost his wife, his nose and his money, for example) which forced him to sell the marbles to the British Museum for 35,000 pounds.

Since then, Greeks and Philhellenes have been trying to get the British Museum to give back the marbles so they could be rejoined with the other half of the Parthenon sculptures, but the British have replied that they could protect them from pollution better and show them to more people than if they were in Athens. The new
Acropolis Museum, ten years in the building, has been created partly as a reply to those assertions.

In the new museum everything is climate-controlled and the surviving Parthenon marbles are displayed in a special top floor gallery facing the building where they originally existed. It’s a dramatic sight, especially at night when the huge sculptures are reflected in the window wall with the Parthenon lighted high above.

At the opening last night, after speeches by officials including Minister of Culture Antonis Samaras, challenging the British to return the marbles, we were led on a tour of the museum’s five levels. As always happens in Athens, when they started to dig on this spot, an entire pre-Christian village emerged underground, so the museum has been built on pillars so that the excavations can continue underneath. And the floors of the museum have been made of glass so that the excavation is visible even from the top floor. The glass floors made for a lot of nervous tiptoeing last night especially among those guests with fear of heights or extra-high stilettos.

On the tour, we were told not to take photos in the top gallery featuring the controversial Parthenon marbles, displayed in a continuous frieze, as they were meant to be shown on the Parthenon — with white plaster casts standing in for the missing British Museum marbles.

After the tour, we were led to the third floor where a string quartet serenaded while we filled plates from three separate buffets of bite-sized Greek delicacies. Then we wandered out onto the immense terrace jutting toward the illuminated Acropolis and I realized that there was a light show projected onto a wall and a large building that created a horizontal screen several stories high right below the Parthenon. (Other light shows were being projected on the front of the museum building itself.) The show featured objects from the museum collection but they were cleverly animated—a silent, smiling archaic statue of a goddess would slowly wink, a calf being carried on a marble kouros statue’s shoulders would suddenly swish his tail, and a primitive bird on a red clay vase would suddenly come alive and fly off toward the next building and up to the sky. (There were even archaic red cat figures rambling across the horizon—perfect for my next Greek Cats book!)

I watched the light show for over an hour, slack-jawed in wonder. Every new scene was unforgettable and a stunning way of dramatizing the treasures in the museum and making them come alive as a moving and vital part of the life of Athens in the 21st century.

On our way out we were given favors—a silver medallion stamped with two archaic horses from the museum collection. As we climbed the steps to the pedestrian walkway outside, toward the majestic outline of the illuminated Parthenon, we saw that dozens, maybe hundreds of passers-by who had not had the privilege of going inside were gathered, watching the light show.

I hope it will continue long after the festivities this weekend, and that everyone will have the thrill of walking through this new world-class museum at the foot of the Acropolis.

I also hope the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum will eventually be restored to this site where they were born. The elderly President of the Museum Dimitrios Pandermalis, said that he believes they will be returned someday, “but I wonder if I will live to see it.”

1 comment:

liz said...

Wow!! Thank you, Joan!!! I am green with envy, and hope to visit the museum someday, with the Elgin marbles restored to their rightful place. -- Hellenophile Liz Tsang