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Reuniting the Parthenon Marbles: The Only Argument You’ll Ever Need

View of the Acropolis and Parthenon (top, above the white building), from within the New Acropolis Museum

Michael Kimmelman, in his cautiously worded, evenhanded article in today’s NY Times on the the Elgin Marbles controversy (pegged to the opening of the New Acropolis Museum), appears to rue the fact that the British and Greeks can’t manage to find a way to put the Parthenon frieze back together again. He gives partisans on both sides their say and allows himself to observe that it’s a “pity” that Greece’s new culture minister, Antonis Samaras, won’t accept a loan that is conditioned on Greece’s recognition of British ownership.

For those of us who care more about the art than the politics of this, there’s only one way to view this issue: The marbles must be reunited because they constitute a single, consummate sculptural masterpiece that was intended to be seen as a continuous procession. Whether British, Greek or American, art lovers want to see this thing whole, not piecemeal. Anything else is a violation of the art, which should be the first concern of the fractious custodians who care so deeply about these fragmented marbles.

My most detailed analysis of this issue appeared in my 2002 NY Times Op-Ed piece, Reassembling Sundered Antiquities, in which I suggested a solution that was also touched upon by Kimmelman. I then wrote:

Arrangements could…be made to continue long-term displays of the
reunited marbles at each venue—the British Museum in London and the
new museum in Athens.

More daunting than logistics of shuttling this monumental work back and forth is the issue of trust: The British Museum would need ironclad assurances that once the marbles were in Athens, they would be allowed to leave when the time came for their long-term London sojourn. I keep envisioning Elgin Marble Riots, with distraught Greeks hurling themselves in the path of transport trucks.

Here’s one problem that can be more easily remedied: The images provided for the press (username and password required) on the New Acropolis Museum’s website ought to include photos of the famous frieze as it has now been installed (with the real marbles chock-a-block with replicas of the British-owned contingent). You already know what I think of this confusing conjoining of the real with the fake: It’s not enough to say that the distinction is clear because the white fakes don’t look like the yellowed antiquities. The genuine British contingent, kept indoors and inappropriately scrubbed many years ago at the British Museum, also look much whiter than their Athens counterparts.

I never got to see the live feed of the new museum’s opening ceremonies (did anyone?), but the museum’s website promises that a video of these ceremonies is “coming soon”…hopefully faster than the time it took for them to open the famously delayed museum, which I visited last year, while it was still a work-in-progress.

an ArtsJournal blog