A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Greece's highest civil court has thrown out a lawsuit that had threatened to permanently halt construction of Athens' new Acropolis Museum, the disputed future home of the hotly contested Parthenon Marbles. Although the museum will not be ready for the August 2004 Olympics as officials originally hoped (see "Does Greece Need the Olympics?"), this decision should enable contractors to restart work on the building. The museum was originally envisioned 14 years ago to replace its decaying nineteenth-century predecessor, which holds archaeological materials from the Acropolis, including works from the Parthenon.
The lawsuit was brought early this year by the International Council on Museums and Sites (ICOMOS) and residents of the neighborhood where the museum is being built. Both contend that archaeological remains on the building site--including a late Roman and three Early Christian baths, a seventh-century bathhouse, and sculpture and pottery dating from the Classical to Byzantine periods--would be damaged by construction. "For the purists, it is better to have no excavations, not to touch anything," says Dimitrios Pandermalis, archaeologist and president of the Committee for a New Acropolis Museum. "For us, the realists, it is better to excavate and then to protect. We have to cover this fragile excavation, so why not cover it with a museum? We're not building a hotel." Cynics point out that no one complained when similar excavations were done during the construction of the Acropolis metro station, only a few hundred yards from the site of the new museum. They suspect that some of the recent lawsuits were a result of local residents' desire to attract attention to the destruction, not of the archaeological site, but of their own houses, hoping to wrest more money from museum developers. More than one-third of the entire budget for the museum project has already been spent buying up property at the site.
The new Acropolis Museum, a three-story glass structure mounted on pillars, is intended not only as an upgrade but also as an enticement. While elements of the Parthenon now sit in ten museums in eight countries, the majority of those not in Athens, known as the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, are in the British Museum in London. These include sculptures that have been traditionally interpreted as depicting the procession to the religious festival of the Panathenaia in the goddess Athena's honor. While the majority of the British public and even government officials support the return of the Marbles to Greece, according to a recent BBC survey, the British Museum has consistently refused, citing many factors including Greece's inability to care for and display them properly. The new Acropolis Museum, with its state-of-the-art display areas, will go a long way toward answering this charge.
Although some have attacked the museum's design as too contemporary, Bernard Tschumi, former dean of Columbia Graduate School of Architecture and the architect of the museum, told Archaeology, "Some people have said it is disrespectful to the Parthenon not to have Doric columns [on the new museum], but I am not interested in imitating the Parthenon. I am interested in [achieving] that level of perfection in my buildings, and for early twenty-first-century architecture to match it in its own way." Pandermalis says both natural and artificial light will be used to "show every detail of the sculpted surfaces, to demonstrate how artists in the fifth century b.c. were interested in the smallest details." Studies are currently being conducted by the museum on whether light or dark backgrounds are better for displaying sculpture, and on how to protect the newly restored sculptures from the city's heat. The results of these studies will be incorporated into the building when it finally rises from its foundations, the only part that has so far been completed.
Visitors to the new museum will walk to the top floor on a ramp that mirrors the ascent up the Acropolis. Once there, they will see the Parthenon's architectural sculpture, including portions of the frieze as they appeared on the building, but with gaps where the missing British Museum pieces would be. "The way we will display the Marbles will be a permanent protest for their return," says Pandermalis. "People believe that these works of art [on the Acropolis] are important, but they don't know why. Most people know about their artistic quality, and we will show that through the use of light. But the frieze is also important for its subject matter. This was the first time the people of the world's first democracy put themselves into their art. These are not mythical gods and creatures, but real people, from Athens, who are participating in the process of democracy."
Both Tschumi and Pandermalis are eager to get back to work. "When the museum gets built, the marbles will come back. There is no question about it," the architect insists.