Art exhibits often have missions or political statements. But the goal of an exhibit opening next month at the Parthenon, the jewel of Athenian art and culture, is more specific than most: It is intended to provoke London's British Museum into loaning its Parthenon sculptures to Greece.
Timed to coincide with the millions of tourists flooding into Athens for the Summer Olympics, the exhibit, which is expected to open Aug. 2, has been assembled to starkly illustrate what the Greeks see as an injustice. It occurred in the 19th century, when the British Lord Elgin and his team of excavators hacked nearly half of the marble sculptures and friezes off the Parthenon and toted them back to London, where they are housed in the British Museum.
The British Museum has refused to return the "Parthenon marbles," as they are known, despite a cultural and political campaign in Greece to have the pieces returned and rejoined with the other remains of the Parthenon. British Museum officials have declined to be interviewed about the matter and have instead issued statements about the marbles.
The exhibit, which is in the final planning stages, will illustrate how Elgin -- who in 1799 became the British ambassador to Constantinople, then the seat of the Ottoman Empire -- removed statues and friezes that were embedded in the very architecture of the Parthenon.
Dr. Alcestis Choremi, the director of the New Acropolis Museum, which is under construction, said the exhibit will highlight the Western frieze of the Parthenon, from which Elgin removed most of the sculptures. With explanatory notes and an accompanying lecture series, the exhibit intends to make clear that by removing the marbles, Elgin dismantled the Parthenon itself.
"The intention of the exhibit will be to show the world our case, that we would like to unite the pieces of the frieze and the statues," Choremi said. "Now we think the Olympics will be a chance to get the world interested, to put the pressure on the British to finally return these important pieces of our heritage."
Greece's deputy minister of culture, Fani Palli-Petralia, said the exhibit aims to "play up the idea that the British must return these treasures. This is a national issue for us, a political issue, and one for all the world to know about, because the Acropolis is a monument of civilization for all of the world."
The controversy between the British Museum and Greece has spurred academics and politicians around the globe to consider broader questions about the claims that nations have on art and the manner in which art should be displayed. There is a growing movement toward the "repatriation" of art that was looted or carted off by one empire -- or crusading archeologists -- and ended up in the great museums of the world. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Choremi pointed out, returned important fragments of ancient Greek vases in 1998, and the German government returned fragments of the building of ancient Olympia in 2001. [more]