The new Acropolis Museum -- a glimpse at the opening party (and of the opening speeches)
Well, to be more accurate, a glimpse from ONE of the opening parties. The big one, for heads of state and celebrities, is on 20 June. I was extremely pleased to be invited to tonight's party, on 18 June -- which gathered together a motley crew of academics, 'restitution campaigners' and other Hellenists, of all persuasions.
I had had a preview of the new Museum a year ago. And the finished product I saw this evening was as good as it promised to be.The outside is the worst feature: it looks rather like an up-market multi-storey car park, dominating an otherwise fairly low level area of Athens (the picture is the view of it from my hotel roof). Inside it is stunning. Not only the fantastic views up to the Acropolis itself, but also down to the 'ground beneath our feet'. The whole museum is built over excavations of classical Greek and Roman settlement -- and you can see these through the glass floors from the very top floor of the building. (Not great for those with vertigo.)
The collection is of course stunning too. Never mind the Parthenon, there are the most wonderful statues of the archaic, pre-classical period. Anthony Snodgrass (who was also there) pointed out to me a marvellous twisting, turning late sixth-century sculpture -- much more striking than the better known, sultry Kritios Boy. And I was very taken by the series of sculptures of scribes, a nice symbol of the literacy of early Greece. And at the other end of the chronological spectrum, you are greeted as you come into the museum by two wonderful Roman terra cotta sculptures of "victories" (Nikai).
But what of the politics? And of the inaugural speech of the minister of culture, Antonis Samaras?
We had been led to believe that this was to be a decidedly non political occasion. But in fact Samaras treated his captive audience to a long plea for the restitution of the Elgin marbles. The Parthenon was, he said, "a monument to beauty", "to freedom", " to reason" (he missed out " to imperialism and misogyny"); it had been "sliced and looted" by Elgin -- but it remained an inspiration to the whole world. Since, he went on (and here the argument lost me), the Parthenon Marbles are "ecumenical" -- a possession of the world -- they should be united in their birth place, that is Athens. And there was plenty more stuff on democracy, inspiration and the moral high-ground (but still nothing on imperialism and misogyny).
The young man who took us round kept as far as he could from the politics (and it was a truly wonderful tour). But the display made the political point. When we got to the top floor where the Parthenon Marbles are, we found plaster casts (in fact the casts given by the British Museum in 1840) standing in for the pieces of the sculpture in London. It makes a powerful case.
But a sceptic might say that there was a powerful political case on the other side embodied here too. Take a look at the condition of the metopes from the temple now in the Acropolis Museum. Many are damaged beyond recognition. Some of that damage is caused by iconoclasm, probably by early Christians. But some is caused by the erosion and acid rain of Athens over the last 50 years. On those terms, whatever Lord Duveen did in the way of 'cleaning' in the 1930s (not a happy period for the marbles, it must be said -- even if not as devastating as it is sometimes made out to be), you have to count the fate of those sculptures taken down from the building in the nineteenth century as lucky by comparison.
It seemed to me to be a bit like the fate of the wall paintings at Pompeii. Archaeologists often deplore the habit of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century excavators of hacking the paintings off the walls and sending them to the museum -- removed from their context and leaving a scar in the original wall. Fair enough, but at least those taken to the museum have not been eroded beyond recognition by the sun, wind and rain.
(After the party I did an interview about the museum for Night Waves. You can listen here.)