Part 3b

"Upon contemplating the baroque of the churches
and the glare of the gold, the visitor looking
does not merge the building with the past: small hills
so dark: and does not grasp the silence
of a totem never seen.
The baroque is not the depletion of the gold
but the right of the raped body."
Edimilson de Almeida Pereira -Ouro Preto -[interpretation itinerary]


At present the British Parthenon sculptures are in the Duveen gallery at the British Museum, the Greek ones in the Acropolis Museum and Acropolis Studies Centre, with a few small fragment in other locations. The Duveen Gallery replaces the previous Elgin Room at the British Museum and as such was a space designed with the specific and sole intention of displaying the marbles. Since the marbles have been in the Duveen Gallery, they have been reorganised once, during a major refit of the gallery and it is this layout that we will now focus on. On first glance the sculptures all appear to be well displayed, There is not only room to stand back and get an overall view, but as the sculptures are all at eye level, you can get as close to them as you want and examine even the minutest detail. The Pediment sculptures are on a plinth that allows your to circulate around them and everything is well lit so that there are no harsh shadows. There are however many unrecognised problems with this arrangement.


The Frieze, of which the British Museum owns more than half, is arranged along the two long walls of the gallery. The east frieze is central to one wall, directly opposite the entrance to the gallery. Because of this location however, the north and south friezes are both broken into two portions on either wall of the gallery, with the fragments of the west frieze on one side of the entrance. The frieze as a whole, although arranged in order, is completely inverted so that it faces inwards rather than outwards. Consequently it is all visible from any point in the central gallery and thus each side of it is treated equally. There is no way that you could possibly believe the frieze was obscured or a secret in this location.

The metopes in the British Museum, all of which come from the south side, are arranged in four locations in opposite corners of the gallery. No matter how simple the story in them might have been, it is impossible to follow when they are arranged in this way, because in moving between the four groups you feel obliged to glance at any other sculptures you pass en route. Any discussion of whether they are arranged in the correct order is rendered irrelevant until they are first arranged in any order.

The pediment sculptures are at either end of the gallery, facing the centre of the space. The plinth they sit on is compressed for reasons of space, but this is not too much of a problem because so many of the central figures are missing. It does however make it hard to get an idea of the true scale and the number of figures that should be present.

Many of the sculptures are either still in Athens or lost and where frieze panels are missing, the intervening ones are just ignored and no attempt is made to represent the figures that are missing from the procession. Two panels once separated by five others in between now butt together, pretending to still be part of a continuous story. In some of the panels, this is obvious as figures are broken at the join, but in other panels the discrepancy can only be seen by carefully following the figure numbering sequence on the information plates beneath.


Nowhere in the British Museum's exoteric arrangement is there any implication of hierarchy, all elements are treated equally and all are instantly visible. No longer is the temple central, it is now the viewer who is central to the arrangement. There is not even the slightest hint of any form of hierarchy within the arrangement, and nothing is revealed as you move through the space. No mention is made of the original existence of a central statue of Athena and no attempt is made to create a linear flow through the sculptures.

Not only is the hierarchy and layering gone, but just as importantly the viewing angle has changed. Whereas once the sculptures were intended to be seen both from a great distance and from a vantage point far below, it is now only possible to view them from eye level. The frieze that was carefully carved so as to display the figures correctly from below is now seen flat on. Even if you want to try and see it from the original angle by lying on the floor, the required vantage point is impossible to achieve due to the security rails at ground level. If you could manage to get the same angle, the effect would still be lost through parallax, as the perspective from two metres away presents an entirely different picture from that of fifty metres. The frieze is presented in a way that it could never have been seen originally and it is impossible to even get close to the original viewing angle. A similar problem occurs when trying to view the metopes and pediments, although here it is of marginally less consequence than in the frieze as from their original location on the outside of the building they could have been seen from a much flatter angle.


"High noon. The light falls vertically, this is the most Greek of hours. The perfect classic. A little later the dusk will bring romantic shadows, will envelop the pure, severe, nudity of the Greek earth in chiaroscuro effects, and break the steady, certain lines. This meridian sun is the true ancient Greek. Dusk, the night and the moon all belong to the sorceresses of Thessaly and Thrace, and to far northern romantics." Nikos Kazantzakis -Travels in Greece

The Greek sun could be seen as one of the governing features in our perception of the architecture there. The deep shadows it creates contrast with the pale austerity and geometry of the buildings. The play of light on and through the columns of a temple echoes the building's organic origins, it is the edge of a forest with shafts of sun breaking through the tree trunks. It is as integral a part of the architecture and sense of place as the physical context surrounding the building.

In the Duveen Gallery, in order to allow clear viewing of the sculptures, large translucent panels allow diffuse daylight to evenly illuminate the entire space supplemented by spotlights with coloured filters. There are only the vaguest hints of shadows in the deepest recesses of the sculptures and you can not tell how distorted the colours are becoming through the tinted light. Again, the original viewing framework is forgotten and lost in the Museum's struggle for exotericity.

Perhaps the most crucial element as regards lighting, is again the frieze. Originally recessed behind the beam supporting the metopes, it would have only received illumination from diffuse sunlight reflected up from the marble walls and the ground around the building. Other parts behind columns would have been deeper in shadow, almost a mystical half image fading in and out like a dream. In the Duveen Gallery however, the frieze still receives the same light from above as the other sculptures. There is no attempt to create a contrast between the harsh and the subtle, the light and the subfusc as there was on the original building.


Even if we assume that all the above arguments are negated by the limited space in the British Museum and that the marbles are currently displayed by them in the best possible way, there is still another opportunity that has been lost by them. As people's concepts of galleries and museums have changed, so the British Museum has subtly altered the modes of display. Additional information galleries have been added in the space preceding the entrance of the Duveen Gallery and these serve the admirable purpose of explaining to people something about the marbles before they enter the main gallery. Amongst other things, are larger information boards, a copy of a metope on a corner with triglyphs around it and a capital beneath it, touchable copies of the marbles for the blind and various smaller finds from the site.

The most impressive feature of these new galleries is a video showing a computerised reconstruction of the Parthenon on a large screen. The computer model is executed to a meticulous level of detail and its aim is to illustrate and explain features of the Parthenon and its sculptures that are not obvious in the main gallery. Amongst other things it shows how the sculptures would have been coloured originally, how the metopes slotted into the triglyphs, how the horsemen were arranged in ranks and how the pediment sculptures are carved in the round. The video was the perfect opportunity to explain and illustrate the shortcomings just discussed, the hierarchy, viewing angle and application of movement.

Instead of showing any of these features, the British Museum's video is entirely context free, with the building drifting in a black abyss without even a ground plane to relate to. Nowhere is there any suggestion of the importance of the context to the building, the route leading to the building, the idea of a procession. Every side of the building is equal and its orientation is only identifiable from closely examining the images on the pediments. To make matters worse however, the video doesn't at any point present the viewer with a human perspective of the building. There is never a stage where you are on the ground looking up at it. Instead the viewer floats level with the middle of the columns, watching the building rotate in front of them and occasionally zooming in to specific details. The building is never explained.

new museum

At present, Athens is in the process of constructing a new Acropolis Museum, close to the Parthenon site at a location specifically chosen because its galleries would allow views to the Parthenon at the same time as seeing the sculptures. Building work was underway but halted due to important archaeological finds on the site. A new competition has just been announced, for a similar site adjacent to the existing one and practices from around the world have been invited to submit schemes.

After the lessons learned from the Duveen Gallery, one might hope that the new gallery would be able to display the sculptures in a more accurate way. Many of the proposals from the previous competition had interesting ideas about showing the building and the marbles simultaneously, while all the schemes had the advantage of not only having the complete collection, but also being within walking distance of the Parthenon itself and thereby allowing a certain relevance of context. Unfortunately though, only a small proportion of the 484 drawings submitted for the previous competition showed more than a hint of understanding of the concepts alluded to. Still more of the schemes, although outwardly appearing to have developed a better comprehension of the relationship between the viewer and the sculptures, on closer examination appeared to be merely blind emulations of the Acropolis form, created with little knowledge of the reasoning behind what was being done. Some entries did display a better understanding of the sculptures and the parameters required for their display, but these submissions were easily lost amidst the grand architectural statements by people wanting to make their own mark on the city, creating buildings that would incidentally house the sculptures as though this aspect was just an insignificant postscript to the main design process.


The problems just described are just one example of how the meaning of the Parthenon Marbles is completely lost to the casual visitor. Not only are the visitors uninterested, but the information and contextual viewing framework that are required for understanding are not there even if someone does want to know more.

The Elgin Marbles are famous for being famous, people now merely want to see them because they are famous, because they have heard of them and think that through this they know what they are. One should however at this point be aware that this problem is not one specific to the Marbles, but one that affects museums and galleries in general. When people visit the British Museum they don't want to see the objects inside, they want to say that they have been there. Even the annual sales figures from the British Museum's own shop reflect this. After the best selling card that depicts the Rosetta Stone (another lost meaning surely) the next two most popular cards are one of the exterior of the museum by day and one of it floodlit at night.

Merely saying the Elgin Marbles are famous for being famous only hints at the problem. What has happened is that through continual cultural exposure, the stones have become highly esteemed in people's eyes. While people might believe that this reverence for a national treasure is a love of the actual object itself, the more they consider the object, the more they lose sight of it.

Originally created by the Greeks after the Persian War as a symbol of triumph ,they were highly expressive of society then. Religious, political and artistic contexts have since altered however and the sculptures no longer hold the same direct relevance to us as they did to the ancient Greeks. Despite the fact that their relevance is no longer present we still try to grasp at it, to build ourselves a culture on a misunderstood past and in doing so we end up more confused.


Unlike many other ancient civilisations and their monuments the spirit of classical Greece is not completely lost. Whilst increasing its importance, this acts as an argument for revering the stones further, in the belief that they themselves are the birth of our civilisation. Unlike the pyramids of ancient Egypt that originated in a different continent, under an extinct culture and were the product of slavery and the deification of a single dictator, we see links between the Parthenon and our world today. Rather than a monument to slavery and self gratification, the Parthenon has come to symbolise democracy and freedom, the populace working towards a common goal and it is that aspect that we identify with today.

Whilst ideas from the time of Pericles continue to carry through our culture, we will continue to iconify the monuments as being our origins, neglecting that their relevance has been allowed to shift away from today and remain in the past. Like so many national treasures, the Elgin Marbles have become revered to a level completely out of proportion with their actual value. At the same time this reverence from some attracts even greater reverence from their followers. The Elgin Marbles are now a mere totem, an item of symbolic value that is sought after yet the reason is obscured. To the public, any true meaning is now lost. To those who want to appreciate them and understand their true worth, it is impossible due to the hordes that rush past in attempt to tick them off the list.

FOOTNOTE: Since this was written a new design for the Acropolis Museum has been accepted by the Greek government. In private correspondence with me Matthew Taylor has expressed the opinion that the new design proposed for the Acropolis Museum now shows a far greater degree of understanding of the Parthenon than any of the short-listed designs in the previous competition.

To view part 3a click here.