Greece Unveils Museum Meant For 'Stolen' Sculptures

  • Greece's new Acropolis Museum, designed by Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi, houses about 4,000 artifacts and sculptures, 10 times the number of items previously held in a small museum atop the Acropolis hill in Athens.
    Hide caption
    Greece's new Acropolis Museum, designed by Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi, houses about 4,000 artifacts and sculptures, 10 times the number of items previously held in a small museum atop the Acropolis hill in Athens.
    Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
  • Officials and dignitaries tour the museum at its official opening in June. Greek officials say the museum should also display multiple sculptures that were first removed from the Parthenon frieze 200 years ago by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Museum.
    Hide caption
    Officials and dignitaries tour the museum at its official opening in June. Greek officials say the museum should also display multiple sculptures that were first removed from the Parthenon frieze 200 years ago by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Museum.
    Petros Giannakouris/AFP/Getty images
  • The museum was constructed as part of a campaign by the Greek government to encourage the return of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles. The museum is built atop an archaeological excavation.  The excavation is visible through this open area near the entrance and various glass floors.
    Hide caption
    The museum was constructed as part of a campaign by the Greek government to encourage the return of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles. The museum is built atop an archaeological excavation. The excavation is visible through this open area near the entrance and various glass floors.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • A view of the Parthenon Gallery in the new museum. Some of the items on display are plaster casts of items currently held in the British Museum's collection.
    Hide caption
    A view of the Parthenon Gallery in the new museum. Some of the items on display are plaster casts of items currently held in the British Museum's collection.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • A portion of the Parthenon's frieze on display in Athens.  Other portions of the frieze are on display at the British Museum.
    Hide caption
    A portion of the Parthenon's frieze on display in Athens. Other portions of the frieze are on display at the British Museum.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • This detail of the frieze, circa 442-438 B.C., shows depictions of Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis and Aphrodite.
    Hide caption
    This detail of the frieze, circa 442-438 B.C., shows depictions of Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis and Aphrodite.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • A relief plaque depicting a female dancer from the Theatre of Dionysus, circa 1st century B.C.
    Hide caption
    A relief plaque depicting a female dancer from the Theatre of Dionysus, circa 1st century B.C.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • This sculpted head of Alexander the Great was found in 1886 near the Erechtheion, the ancient temple on the north side of the Acropolis.
    Hide caption
    This sculpted head of Alexander the Great was found in 1886 near the Erechtheion, the ancient temple on the north side of the Acropolis.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • A view of the Archaic Gallery in which statues are displayed in the open, allowing visitors to walk among the various artifacts.
    Hide caption
    A view of the Archaic Gallery in which statues are displayed in the open, allowing visitors to walk among the various artifacts.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • A detail of the marble sculpture known as Peplos Kore, circa 530 B.C., a statue of a young Greek woman now on display in the museum.
    Hide caption
    A detail of the marble sculpture known as Peplos Kore, circa 530 B.C., a statue of a young Greek woman now on display in the museum.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
  • The Caryatids from the Erechtheion are sculpted female figures that served as architectural supports for the temple.
    Hide caption
    The Caryatids from the Erechtheion are sculpted female figures that served as architectural supports for the temple.
    Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum

1 of 11

View slideshow i

A new, hypermodern museum at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens has a defiant purpose: to convince Britain to give back the symbols of ancient Greek glory, the 2,500-year-old sculptures of the Parthenon that were pried off the temple by Lord Elgin two centuries ago.

For decades, the main argument against the return of the sculptures — known as the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles — was Greece's lack of a suitable location for their display. The new Acropolis Museum is a stunning rebuttal.

Designed by Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi, the five-story building has an area of 226,000 square feet. Its glass-covered exterior walls reflect the images of the Parthenon and surrounding ruins.

The Parthenon Gallery in the new Acropolis Museum i i

The Parthenon Gallery is the showcase of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece. The entire 525 feet of the Parthenon's frieze is re-created in the gallery. Plaster casts represent the sculptures that were removed more than 200 years ago by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Museum, where they are today. Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
The Parthenon Gallery in the new Acropolis Museum

The Parthenon Gallery is the showcase of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece. The entire 525 feet of the Parthenon's frieze is re-created in the gallery. Plaster casts represent the sculptures that were removed more than 200 years ago by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Museum, where they are today.

Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum

The museum is the new home for hundreds of statues from the Archaic and Classical eras. Randomly distributed on the floor of a large gallery, the statues appear as if they are part of a crowd milling in the public square, giving visitors one-on-one, close-up contact with the marble ancients.

But the top floor, the Parthenon Gallery, is the museum's showcase, says archaeologist Naya Charmalia, a member of the museum's exhibition team.

"This is the crown of the building, a glass box and glass surfaces, because the major requirement was the visual link to the Acropolis. You can see the monument and at the same time the sculptures from the monument," Charmalia says.

'Everyone Understands What Is Missing'

The display space is the same dimension and orientation as the Parthenon looming on the Acropolis hill, just 900 feet away. Thanks to wraparound glass windows, the exhibits bask in the same natural light surrounding the original temple, which was built for the goddess Athena, the protector of the city of Athens below.

Britain's Lord Elgin chiseled off roughly half the sculptures that adorned the Parthenon in the early 1800s, when Greece was an unwilling member of the Ottoman Empire. Later, he sold them to the British Museum.

At the new museum, plaster casts of the sculptures housed in London are interspersed with original pieces Elgin left behind.

Charmalia says the contrast between the stark white plaster and the ancient honey-colored stone has a specific purpose.

"Everyone understands at once what is missing, because if you say numbers, you can't understand, but you can see how many are missing," she says.

Extending for 525 feet, the sculptures of the temple's frieze depict a festival honoring Athena, a procession of worshippers performing rituals, and musical and athletic contests.

Other parts of the temple's exterior — the metopes and pediments — depict legendary battles and mythological scenes.

While pressure on the British Museum has increased, its spokeswoman, Hannah Boulton, firmly rejects repatriating the chiseled marbles to Greece.

The Peplos Kore i i

The Peplos Kore, circa 530 B.C., is a marble statue of a young woman (kore) wearing a garment called a peplos. Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum
The Peplos Kore

The Peplos Kore, circa 530 B.C., is a marble statue of a young woman (kore) wearing a garment called a peplos.

Courtesy of Nikos Daniilidis/Acropolis Museum

"They are now museum objects. They are objects of world art. And as such, there is no problem in terms of them being divided between two different museums and telling two different, but complementary stories," she says.

Issue Of National And Cultural Pride

Nevertheless, Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pandermalis says his aim is to reunify the entire composition close to its original setting.

"We have from the same figure, half of the body in Athens, half of the body in London. We have a body in London and a head in Athens. We have horses in London, and the tails of the horses are in Athens. It is a moral problem in art of divided monuments," he says.

British Museum officials concede that it could loan some of the sculptures, as long as Greece recognizes its ownership of the artifacts. It's a proposal Pandermalis rejects.

"They don't belong to the British, they don't belong to us. They belong to history. They are not pieces of trade," he says.

The campaign for the return of the sculptures is part of the international debate over ownership of cultural property.

For Greeks, the return of the Parthenon Marbles is an issue of national and cultural pride.

Maro Kakridi-Ferrari, professor in the philosophy department of Athens University, says the Parthenon — and what it symbolizes — were traumatized by the sculptures' removal.

"They are the material proof of what democracy has built in Athens of the Classical period," she says. "They are identified with the glory of ancient Greece, and they are part of the national identity."

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.