Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Acropolis Museum and the Parthenon Marbles

I recently visited the new museum at the Acropolis in Athens.

One reason for building a museum at the Acropolis is to house the Parthenon Marbles, which Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, bought from the Turks when Greece was under Ottoman rule and transported to England. They are now on beautiful display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum in London. Greece wants these marbles back because they constitute a very important heritage for the Greeks – as indeed they do for all of humanity.

I want here to comment on only one aspect, which is the way these marbles are intended to be displayed in the new Athens museum, should they every be returned.

It is very poorly thought out and an utter failure.

We would find it intolerable if, when listening to music, another piece of music were to be played.

It is similarly true that, in vision, too many distractors (in the form of too many other visual stimuli) interfere with our ability to appreciate what we are looking at. There are indeed studies of the phenomenon of “visual crowding”, which show a degraded ability to perceive visual stimuli when they are surrounded by other stimuli. This phenomenon has been more usually studied with peripheral vision but it is applicable to central vision as well.

Back to the Acropolis Museum. The background against which they intend to display the Parthenon Marbles, if they are returned, is so cluttered with other displays as to be totally distracting. Somehow, our visual field is invaded by so much else that it cannot concentrate on one item.

And this distracts from, and diminishes, the beauty and the inspiration that the Parthenon marbles provide.

This cluttering is actually a problem with many museums, especially ones that do not have enough space for all they want to exhibit.

The recently refurbished Museum of Modern Art in New York is splendid not only for its rich collection, but for the remarkable way in which they are displayed, with enough space around most paintings to enable the viewer to concentrate on each without the crowding that distracts.

Perhaps there is a minimum distance that should separate one exhibit from another. Perhaps it is worth establishing some general principles regarding this through psychophysical studies in vision. Indeed those specialized in psychophysics have actually come up with some rules. Perhaps architects and interior designers should have the humility to learn a little about visual science and visual psychophysics before they embark on such grandiose schemes.

I do not know who designed the Acropolis Museum. And I do not know who the curator is. All I know is that these precious marbles, which, though born in Greece, belong to all of us, are a huge inspiration and deserve to stand in isolation, without the distracting effects of other stones, as indeed they currently are in the British Museum.

Whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in Britain will, ultimately, be a political decision. There is no doubt that a large number of lawyers will be involved in deciding whether the terms under which Lord Elgin transported the marbles to England were legitimate or not. I am not able to comment on these.

But I can comment on the aesthetic side and say that, on aesthetic grounds alone, the marbles should stay in London where they can be freely viewed by all and where they continue to provide a dazzling inspiration for millions.

If a time comes when a better place for them can be found than their current house in the splendid Duveen Galleries in London, then the question of their re-patriation can be re-visited.


PsyArch said...

[I have not seen the New Acropolis Museum]

Bernard Tschumi is the Architect responsible, though I would expect that in his designs, the marbles were given due space and respect.

It is more likely the director or curator who, in the absence of the marbles has succumbed to their propagandist needs and inserted extraneous exhibits.

Perhaps also it's the glass exterior walls that allow the chaos of Modern Athens to infuse the experience?

S.Z. said...

Thanks for your comment. In fact, replicas of the Parthenon Marbles are on exhibit at the new Acropolis Museum and their places will be taken by the real marbles, should they be returned from the British Museum. Thus a visitor to the Acropolis Museum gets a very good impression of how it is intended to display the real marbles in the Acropolis Museum.

Paul Schütze said...

I think perhaps the context in which the marbles were originally sited may have been a little less refined than the vacuum they currently occupy at the BM.

In our enthusiasm to isolate artifacts, to suspend them in the amber of classical history we readily abandon the chaotic and often disagreeably vulgar context in which they performed their original functions. I suspect along with the needed debate about aesthetic privileging there will be little discussion of restoring the lurid blue pigment which we are now pretty certain formed the ground of the relief carvings on the marbles. The whole of the Parthenon was hideously polychrome (an impulse revived today by the Athenian night lighting which makes it look like a disco) unlike Tschumi's elegant museum which for my money invigorates it's contents to much the degree the BM ossifies many of it's own

Anonymous said...

You do have a point regarding the display, but the issue is not that simple:
1.The marbles are displayed in a way that simulates their original positioning into the Parthenon, which is important because these are not just random sculptures; they are telling a story. It is important that the visitor understands this as well as the art itself.
2.The architecture of the building and the placement of the artifacts provide the visitor a synchronized view of the sculptures and the parthenon itself, in order to have a more complete experience.
3. The design of the building provides natural light similar to the parthenon, transforming the sculptures throughout the day.

So there was a choice needed to be made between these three advantages and a traditional sterilized display; the designers, architects, curators and archeologists that designed the museum decided to go to take this new direction.

S.Z. said...

I am sure that you are right in this, Anonymous. And I am sure that the architects went into considerable trouble to display things as nearly as possible in accordance with the original settings. Translating things from one setting to another is never easy. In this instance, it has not worked well aesthetically, at least for me. The way that the Parthenon stones are displayed in the British Museum is much more pleasing - again, only a personal opinion.