As the Acropolis and its monuments declare to the world, nothing makes a grander statement than a grand building. Thucydides, in his unforgettable chronicle of the decline and fall of Athens, noted that in the future people would look on the ruins of his city and consider it greater than it was, while the ruins of its great rival, Sparta, would make the Peloponnesian city appear less mighty than it was. Athens’s fortunes have waxed and waned at the foot of the Acropolis for more than 2,500 years and the rocky hill and its monuments have reflected this. Free people celebrating their triumph over foreign invaders built the Parthenon and its temples on the smoldering ruins that a Persian army had left behind after a debate on whether it would be best to preserve the ruins as eternal condemnation of the desecration or to push aside the past and build for the present – and posterity.
The outcome of that argument was decisive in shaping our civilization – and in creating a heritage for Greeks through the ages. The Greeks did many great things in philosophy, medicine and the arts but nothing concentrated their achievements more than the buildings and sculptures on the Acropolis. The polemics over the Parthenon and its sculptures – especially those in the British Museum for the past 200 years – often overshadow the fact that the Parthenon may be the grandest but is not the only building on the Acropolis. The “Sacred Rock” as Greeks call it, has a history dating long before the Golden Age of Pericles, when the ruins that we now see were built. And the naturally fortified hill that allowed prehistoric tribes to settle in this once-fertile plain has a long tale to tell. The saga of the missing Marbles is a chapter in that long story, one that will end when they return to join those in the New Acropolis Museum. For now, the missing Marbles tell the story of the Parthenon during the long night of the Ottoman occupation, when the Greeks were unable to protect their treasures from destruction and theft. The shattered shell of the Parthenon underlines the vulnerability of a nation caught in endless war. The ongoing preservation works tell the story of mistakes in past preservation projects and the effects of modern Athens’s chronic air pollution.
The new museum highlights the missing Marbles’ absence by stressing where they would have been if they were here. This finger-pointing, too, is part of the story. But, as every visitor will see, the Acropolis hosts not only the Parthenon but also the Erechtheum, the temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia, while many of its treasures are a lot older than the sculptures of the Classical era. The new museum will show the development of Greek sculpture by juxtaposing copies of the absent pieces with treasures from other buildings and other eras on the Acropolis. The generous exhibition space will also allow a new appraisal of many overlooked masterpieces that were in storage or cramped into the tight corners of the old museum.
The rock of the Acropolis is the touchstone of Greece’s fortunes. The New Acropolis Museum, built after a delay of decades, is a declaration by the people of this land that they honor their past not by crying over lost glory but by protecting it, displaying it in the best possible way, and by creating a new public space that will change the way the city, its people and their visitors interact with the Acropolis and its treasures. And the best way to get the missing sculptures back is to embarrass those who hold them by showing them up as unwitting players in a story that is so much bigger than them.
Editorial in Athens Plus, 19 June 2009