I’m just back from a small press lunch with Dimitris Pandermalis, who heads the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, and Bernard Tschumi, the architect of the new museum, which is nearing completion at the foot of the Acropolis. The museum will house the Parthenon marbles that remain in the possession of Greece, but as everybody knows it’s most provocative feature will be the galleries — partly empty galleries — designed expressly to hold the statuary that’s not in Greece. What that means, chiefly, is the Elgin Marbles that have been in the possession of the British Museum since 1816, when the British government bought them from that crafty Scotsman Lord Elgin.
This is called architecture as moral pressure. The Elgin Marbles — meaning large parts of the Parthenon’s frieze, 15 metopes and numerous pediment sculptures — were sawed off and carted away by Lord Elgin and his subordinates in the first years of the 19th century, long before the 1970 UNESCO agreement that established a (somewhat) effective legal regime to regulate the export of antiquities. As a consequence, the Greeks, who want them back, have no real legal remedies at their disposal. (This is one way that the Elgin marbles differ from the antiquities being pursued by Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli. What he’s been going after from American museums is work that he believes was unlawfully acquired after 1939, the cut off year specified by the UNESCO agreement for the export of antiquities without permission.) So what the Greeks have opted for instead is a series of galleries designed (for now) partly as a series of gaping holes. Which, as a way to leverage public opinion, may be more effective than a courtroom if they work it right.
The museum, which was originally supposed to be completed in time for the Athens Olympics in 2004, will be getting a slow motion launch that starts early next year. The collections won’t be fully installed until the end of 2008, but the public will be admitted into the museum as the installations are underway.
Here are a few data points from the lunch:
1. Pandermalis made it clear that — eventually — the Greeks will seek the return of all statuary related to the Parthenon, meaning not just the Elgins, which are by far the largest score, but the portion of the frieze that’s presently in the Louvre, and the smaller fragments in Copenhagen, Palermo and elsewhere.
2. As we get closer to the official opening of the museum late next year, pressure will likely build for the British Museum to take part in a loan show to send the Elgin Marbles temporarily to Athens to allow them to be seen for the first time in centuries in the company of the other Parthenon marbles. In May there was a fascinating exchange of feelers via the media between British Museum Director Neil McGregor and lower ranking Greek cultural functionaries about the — still very hypothetical — possibility of the Brits “lending” the marbles to Greece if the Greeks would acknowledge that the trustees of the British Museum are the owners. That’s a big if, but it was an unusual exchange, and surely McGregor made his comments, first made I believe to Bloomberg News, with the prospect of that Athens museum show in his mind.
As for Tschumi’s museum, it looks promising, but I try to resist the temptation to comment on buildings I haven’t visited. Here’s a look.