Mock-up of copies (left) of the Parthenon Marbles in the New Acropolis Museum
The planners of the New Acropolis Museum had a brilliant idea for display of the Parthenon Marbles. Then they improved upon it. Now they’ve ruined it.
What still remains of the original plan is the installation of the sculptural slabs around the outside of a rectangular structure of the same dimensions as the Parthenon, to simulate their original display on the monument. This is truer to their ancient installation than displaying them inside the walls of a traditional museum gallery, as their British-owned counterparts are now arrayed at the British Museum. In the first version of this idea, admonitory voids were to have been left in all the spaces where the British-owned slabs belonged—a startlingly stark demonstration of the disruption that their removal caused to the continuous procession depicted in the fabled frieze.
By last July, when I attended a press lunch in New York about the museum’s plans and progress, this concept had evolved into something even more interesting: Dimitris Pandermalis, president of the Organization
for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, told us that copies of the British-owned marbles would be installed in their proper places, but veiled over with scrims, to insure that there would be no confusion between the originals and the copies. Each veiled slab would appear as “a ghost,” as he put it.
As of last October, when some journalists were invited to tour the museum-in-progress, that was still the plan (as described by Nicolai Ouroussoff in the NY Times, here, and Richard Lacayo in his Looking Around blog, here). This would have been a powerful visual polemic for the marbles’ return, made all the more forceful by the dramatic view of the Parthenon itself through the gallery’s glass wall.
But attendees at last week’s “Return of Cultural Objects” conference (where I was an invited speaker), held in the auditorium of the impressively monumental Bernard Tschumi-designed New Acropolis Museum, were shown something very different and, to my mind, most disturbing.
The original Acropolis objects are now on the premises but still, for the most part, not yet unpacked. However, copies of all the marbles now residing in London and Athens have been installed in their correct sequence in the expansive top-floor Parthenon gallery (above). Before the museum opens, according to Pandermalis, they will be replaced by the original Athens marbles and by casts of the British-owned marbles that were given to Greece by Great Britain in the 19th century. There will be no voids (except for marbles that have been irretrievably lost) and no scrims.
By installing the real and the fake on equal footing, the Greek have dropped not only the reproachful veils but also the moral force of their installation.
Pandermalis gave me several reasons for the change, during two visits to the gallery on successive days. The first time, he said the advantage of the more homogeneous installation would be to “give the impression of the rhythm of the frieze.” He also observed that some of the original slabs now exist only as fragments, which, he said, would look odd behind scrims.
On the second visit, he told me that the contrast between the flatness of the scrim and the sculptural quality of the authentic marbles would create a disjointed experience for the viewer.
So unless the Greeks change their minds again (as I hope they will), the visitor will see the celebrated icons of world civilization chockablock with plaster blocks. Pandermalis avers that visitors will be able to distinguish between the real and the fake, because the recreations will be whiter and have a different texture. (In the above photo, the whiter marbles in the foreground represent London-owned slabs; the browner ones, further down the wall, represent those retained in Athens.)
I’m not so sure that the average tourist will make these crucial distinctions. What’s more, the authentic British marbles are themselves whiter than those in Athens and have a different texture, because the Greek contingent was darkened by overexposure to Athens pollution and the British counterparts were whitened by an infamously harsh scrubbing in the late 1930’s.
Even if visitors understand the difference between the real and the fake in the Parthenon gallery, this compromised display subverts the mission of museums as uncompromising champions of the authentic. Forcing the true marbles to fraternize as equals with the false insults their integrity and their majesty.
At the New York press lunch last July, architect Tschumi told us that the goal of the (now abandoned) plan to substitute veiled copies for the missing marbles was to “create a public understanding of the necessity of completing the narrative.” To the extent that visitors to the new museum may be satisfied by the display now in play, the Greeks’ case that they need the to replace the fake with the real will be seriously undermined.
That is surely not the result they intended.