Astonished by the Acropolis

The Acropolis Museum in Greece is a reminder of the lost Elgin Marbles and a rebuke to the British. It could also be an inspiration for India

Written by Rupika Chawla | Published: March 3, 2012 12:31 am

The Acropolis Museum in Greece is a reminder of the lost Elgin Marbles and a rebuke to the British. It could also be an inspiration for India

What the strike is to the Greeks is akin to what the bandh is for us — a way of achieving results from the government when action is required. I suspect the Greeks have a strong,determined side to them that takes them to the heart of a matter with great clarity. Think of their response to the challenge thrown by the British,when the Greeks recently asked for the return of the Elgin Marbles — large sections of the Parthenon frieze,pediments and metopes carried away two centuries ago by Lord Elgin,the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Such a demand had been brought into prominence in the ’80s by Melina Mercouri,the actress,singer and forceful culture minister.

It can be argued by cynics that national treasures having been spirited away by colonisers and invaders is a common — albeit traumatic — occurrence,demonstrated by centuries of turbulent global history. We,as proud Indians,would not hesitate to compile a long list of valuable artifacts plundered from our land from very early times. Few dwell on the important issue of whether we would respect,nurture and preserve these riches,were they ever returned to us,once the initial triumph of recovering them is spent. We are famously infamous for the callousness and indifference shown to the innumerable treasures that are still with us in museums and

heritage sites.

This is not quite the situation with the Parthenon and with Greece,for both have a unique trajectory that resonated into the many centuries that followed. The Parthenon belongs to the time when classical Greece was young and vigorous,when Socrates,Euripides,Sophocles and so many others of this extraordinary period were empowered by the tremendous intellectual and creative possibilities inherent in mankind. The time was around 440 BC and Sophocles established the spirit and achievements of the period by declaring: “Many marvels there are,/ But none so marvelous as Man.” And the symbol of what this marvel called man could do was to create the Parthenon,establish scientific thought,literature,architecture and philosophy that would forever,in the minds of all future generations,epitomise the word “classical”. This period was the naissance (birth) of what was much later in the 14th century to be the renaissance (rebirth) of art and learning. And while the Greek naissance happened,the Parthenon glowed on the flat summit of the Acropolis,a rallying point for Classical Greece,its symbol and its inspiration.

But subsequent centuries were to extract their price from the Parthenon; destruction and vandalism were to strike it forcibly. The final devastation lay in Elgin’s hands. The Grecians watched helplessly as parts of the Parthenon were hacked and carried away across the seas,causing Byron to say,“Curst be the hour,when from their isle they roved”.

The necessity for a state-of-the-art museum at Athens was only reinforced when the explanation given by the British,to the constant requests for the return of the Parthenon marvels was that the Greeks had no museum worthy of housing the Parthenon remains,were they ever to be returned to Greece. The response to such a challenge was the astounding Acropolis Museum that opened to the public in 2009. Built on the slope of the Acropolis,the building stands over a large excavated area that dates from about 6th century BC to 5th century AD. After the stone steps that lead to the building,the floor that one walks over — gingerly,cautiously and then fascinatedly — is made of glass,a clear floor that covers the excavated sites. Such an encounter with the uncovered remains ranging from Classical Greece to the later Roman and early Christian period is extraordinary,especially since India is a long way from opening up archaeological sites with such sophistication. The glass floor continues to pull the gaze and total attention downwards,lured by what lies beneath. A gentle glassy slope then appears,metaphor for the slope leading up to the Parthenon,a few hundred yards away. The entire museum built of glass,marble and airy lightness,in fact,is an architectural suggestion,a metaphor for the Parthenon,the adjacent exquisite temple of Erechtheion and their surroundings. The large hall of the Parthenon,for example,finds its echo in the measurement of the large space on the second floor of the museum. To reinforce the sense of the metaphor,two rows of nickel and titanium columns outside the hall space suggest the original marble Ionic ones that are in plain view from near the metallic ones,evocatively close on the Acropolis nearby,visible through the glass walls.

In a move to preserve the Parthenon sculptures from Athens’ polluted air,all the remaining metopes and friezes — the ones left behind by Elgin — have been brought down from the Parthenon and positioned in exactly the same place between the metallic columns as they were in the original. The “Elgin Marbles” now in the British Museum have been replicated in plaster of Paris and slotted into spaces that repeat the original. With such a move,many concepts simultaneously spin into action: preservation of the decaying Marbles,a museum that works as a metaphor of the original and a subtle demonstration of the loss felt by the Grecians in the absence of precious heritage through the presence of replicas that speak of the lacuna.

The question often asked — rhetorically at times — is why the richness of our own past,of our own treasures,is not showcased in appropriate buildings with pertinently conceived displays both visually powerful and informative. The blame does not lie in a shortage of talent to implement dream museums,for talent there is,straining at the leash,in a desire to make museums that we would be proud of. The blame lies in an apathetic,laissez-faire system,content with the mediocre,and unwilling to make a change or allow it to happen.

Chawla is a Delhi-based art conservator and writer

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