Joseph Cassar, professor of art, University of Maryland University College and the New York Times Knowledge Network
Built in the 5th century BCE, at the height of Athens’ power during the Golden Age of Pericles, the Parthenon was built to proclaim the glory of Athens to the world. The massive temple’s exterior was embellished with some of the finest architectural sculptures ever to be produced in antiquity; the decorative sculptures, created under the supervision of the master sculptor Pheidias, are masterpieces of the High Classical Period. The Elgin Marbles, (commonly referred to as the Parthenon Marbles), originally part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis, now reside in London’s British Museum. The extensive collection, removed from the ruins of the Parthenon in the 19th century by Thomas Bruce, Seventh Lord Elgin, represents about half of what now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 pediment figures; and objects from other Acropolis buildings. Lord Elgin claimed that he rescued these works during his service as ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul from 1801 to 1805. Understandably, the Elgin Marbles are a source of controversy between modern Britain and Greece. Greece wants the artifacts to return home. For some time, the primary argument against the return of the sculptures was Greece’s lack of a suitable location for their display. However, the Acropolis Museum, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi, which opened its doors in 2007 with 14,000 square meters of exhibition space, is a stunning rebuttal to this argument. The Parthenon Gallery, the crown of the museum overlooking Acropolis Hill, was created as the ideal place to display the works. Yet it continues to remain empty. This lecture analyzes some of the best works in the Acropolis Museum and considers several questions concerning the ethics of collecting artifacts of cultural heritage. Do the citizens of modern Greece have any claim over items produced in their region by people thousands of years ago? There are no easy answers, and controversy abounds.
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