Musings on the Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

bust parthenon museum athensThere are some nice pieces of ancient Greek art at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Unfortunately, most of them are not from the Parthenon. A lot of them have been dug up, again relatively recently, from a find on the Acropolis which was essentially a burial ground of much statuary that was interred there after the sack of Athens by the Persians in the Fifth Century B.C. As the pointed signs will tell you, the Greeks believe the major damage was done to the Parthenon, not by the Persians, nor by the Turks or Venetians during their occupations of Greece, but instead by the English. The British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th Century, Lord Elgin, managed to cut down and haul off to England the very best of the Parthenon marbles. You can see them today in the British Museum.

Now, I don't think that's as bad a thing as the Greeks would like us to believe, because the marbles that weren't appropriated by Lord Elgin were left to deteriorate in the acid atmosphere of polluted Athens for the subsequent 200 years or so until finally being moved indoors to the protective confines of the Acropolis Museum, which finally opened in 2009. Consequently, the marbles that were left on the Parthenon are so degraded that it's only by reading the placards that accompany them, or by looking at drawings made in the 17th Century, that you might have any idea of what they represent.

So, whether you think the marbles should be returned to Greece or not, it's an inarguable fact that the British preserved them while the Greeks let their own spectacular heritage go to near complete ruin.

frieze parthenon museum athensThis is one of the very best of the Parthenon marbles in the Acropolis Museum. Most of them are much much worse than this.

parthenon frieze british museumCompare it to this one, from the British Museum, that I photographed last year.

One might even infer that the bust at the top of this post (from the Acropolis, but not from the Parthenon) seems to be crying for the great loss to human record. At least that's what I'm going with.

But that's the past. And now Athens has a lovely home for the marbles at the Acropolis Museum. Maybe it is time to give them back.

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17 thoughts on “Musings on the Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece”

    • It certainly does, Irene, but when it comes to tourism, I think most countries (and certainly the EU) think it’s worth it. Spain is (or at least, was) certainly spending a fortune to do it, and tourism is about the only industry in Spain that’s doing well.

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      • I should perhaps also add, that the British economy is certainly better able than the Greek to sustain an ongoing effort at conservation. Perhaps they’d agree to return the Elgin Marbles only under a strict contract that the Greeks would make the necessary investment in their preservation and display. BTW, the British Museum has built a permanent exhibit space that shows the Marbles in spectacular and accessible fashion. And, there’s the argument that they’re seen by many more people in London than they would be in Athens. Finally, if we start repatriating all artifacts of all cultures, it’s going to make for some pretty empty and boring museums around the world.

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  1. An interesting perspective on antiques being moved from their original site to museums in the “western world” (quotation marks because Greece would be counted as part of this). I never thought of it this way. My thoughts on the entire issue nowadays are that the international community (or UNESCO as an organisation) should find the funds to pay for museums and ongoing security in the countries of origin. Some developing countries simply don’t have the means to do so and hence lose their heritage.

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    • Juergen, if I’m not mistaken, the money flow between UNESCO and the various heritage sites flows in the other direction. One of the criteria for naming a site a UNESCO site is a promise that money will be spent to preserve the site by the host country.

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    • Yes, we definitely needed some Monuments Men during that war between Venice and the Ottomans in the 17th Century. But, as you know from reading the book, the generals like to blow stuff up, and there’s not much you can do to stop them.

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  2. The world needs the equivalent of a Bill Gates Foundation to save spectacular pieces of art. With budgets in disarray I do wonder if there isn’t a place for private money. Who knows – probably a very contentious issue.

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    • Leigh, there are certainly plenty of American billionaires who could help with stuff like this. I do like that Gates decided to attack malaria, which you can hardly dispute. Maybe if he does eradicate it, there will be some left over for art.

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  3. We just arrived in Athens today, and my husband made the same comment, ‘Maybe it’s time to give them back’. But as you say it’s a pretty sensitive issue on both sides, and the British museum has done a lot to preserve artifacts from cultures around the world.

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    • It’s hard to beat the British Museum. They’ve got the best stuff from all the continents. They had the power, and for the most part, the great taste to take the best. Their collection of Greek amphoras is maybe even more impressive than the Elgin marbles. I can stare at those for hours.

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  4. It’s being taken care of at the British Museum. At this time, when money could be used in so many other ways by philanthropists, I think it should stay in England. The Greeks should be pleased it was rescued!

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  5. Enjoyed the post on the Elgin Marbles and particularly the musings on how the British vandalism and theft ironically led to their preservation. As you can tell, I’m in the camp that believes cultural artifacts should be making their way home. For instance, I’d like to see a 25-50 year plan to move them back to Greece assuming Greece figures out how to house them.

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    • John, I think that’s a reasonable solution. I hope they can work something out. A lot of animosity could be avoided. If I were the Brits though, I’d make the Greeks take some of Damien Hirst’s sculptures as recompense.

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  6. Interesting debate! Regardless of whether the out-and-out plunder and removal of these cultural artifacts inadvertently led to their preservation it must be so fascinating to see these treasures. Thanks for the tour and we can’t wait until I can visit them in person either in the British Museum or Greece’s Acropolis Museum.

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