When Religion Goes Missing in the Modern Museum

I. A Museum Half-Full, Half-Empty

On the week of the summer solstice, that most energized and sacred week in the pagan calendar, the Greek government opened a new national museum. The plans for the building, designed by Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi, were first revealed at the Venice Biennale in 2002. They have been completed in ambitious fashion. But the new museum is empty.

Or rather, the new museum is not filled with the artifacts for which it was designed. This museum was designed to encourage, as well as to enable, the British Museum to return the so-called Elgin Marbles—that rich collection of Classical statues and friezes that were looted from the Athenian Parthenon at the beginning of the nineteenth century—to Greece.

Gods Without Altars

That religious statuary has been reconceived as national treasure is but one of the oddities, and one of the transformations, managed by the modern public art museum. In the opinion of a famous French classicist (writing in 1815 about the recent French looting of the Vatican Museum that brought countless such Classical treasures to Paris), it is hard not wax mournfully in the face of such religious depredations:

How many works have lost their real value in losing their use! Thus every day we see reduced to the tribute of barren admiration all the scattered mutilated fragments of antiquity—gods without altars, altars without worshipers.
(A-C Quatremère de Quincy).

Gods without altars, altars without worshipers; the problem, Quatremère believed, was the notion that ancient religious images could now serve as national treasure, intended to serve the interests and celebrate the glory of modern nation-states. The Musée Napoleon (now the Louvre), with its impressive display of pilfered Vatican statues, was intended as a monument to imperial French glory, not to the Greek gods at all.

The case of the Parthenon marbles is an especially complex one; the Greek government insists that it is altogether unique. And that debate constitutes a major part of the confusion about what to do with these marbles and museums today.

Looting as Love

What is clear is that Lord Elgin used his position as ambassador to Istanbul to gain access to the Athenian Akropolis, as well as the right to remove objects from the temple for further study. It is not clear that the sultan who granted the permission imagined Elgin taking these things away permanently, but that is what Elgin arranged. The Greeks object that the Turks had no business giving Greek marbles away; but of course, then our quarrel is with the whole structure of nineteenth-century gunpowder imperialism. To demand the return of all such ill-gotten goods would hasten the end of the modern public art museum as we know it today. But again, the Greeks insist that this case is unique, not a precedent-setter.

The case is even more complicated because when Elgin endeavored to sell the collection to the British government, the Parliament held three months of hearings to determine: 1) whether the pieces were rightfully Elgin’s to sell; 2) how much such an unprecedented collection was actually worth; and 3) whether state funds could legitimately be used to make such a purchase. In the end, the marbles were purchased for the British Museum, but for roughly half the cost Elgin incurred in dismantling and transporting them to England. Elgin’s pleas for more money fell on deaf parliamentary ears.

There was a rule of law operating throughout this sad situation, even if it is a rule we no longer hold in high regard. In this sense, the marbles belong in England as much as they belong anywhere.

Of course, there are implicit and subtle notions of ancestry and of ownership that lie just beneath the surface of any and every debate about repatriation. Repatriation implies some notion of the Greek term patrida, the homeland, to which such treasures rightly belong. And that notion cuts to the heart of the current controversy.

The French looted the Vatican in order to increase their stock of national treasure. The British purchased the Parthenon in order to enrich their own collection of national treasures as well as to surpass the French collection (unsurprisingly, after Waterloo, the British supported the return of the Vatican marbles, and even helped to pay for their return to Rome).

The British and others in the nineteenth century also believed ancient Greece to be the “origin of European civilization” and in this sense, the Parthenon belonged to all Europeans who cared, not just to the modern Greeks. Hegel’s lectures on world history in the 1820s made this point elegantly, and the reach of his ideas about ancient Greece was long. Looting can be an ironic expression of love, of a sort.

Thus when the Greek government today makes an appeal for the marbles based on their status as national treasure, they are ironically using the selfsame terminology and the selfsame logic that led to the looting in the first place. Who is to say to whom a statue dedicated to an ancient goddess belongs, several millennia later?

When the Greek nation won its independence from the Ottoman empire in 1830, and when the project of nation-building really took off in the later 19th century, then archaeology played a major role in the construction of a new image of the new-old Greek nation.

The Parthenon itself had, by then, been many things. The Byzantines had turned it into a church, the Church of Holy Wisdom. The Franks turned it into a fortress, replete with a new defensive tower. The Turks turned it into a mosque, then later used it as a powder magazine. The Venetian Count Morosoni, knowing this, lobbed a shell into the Parthenon in 1687, blasting an enormous hole in one side of the walls. Some sketches of the Parthenon marbles by the Frenchman, Jacques Carrey (completed just a few years prior to the Venetian incursion), give us some sense of the scope of the damage.

When the fledgling Greek nation elected to move its capital to Athens and excavated and restored the Parthenon to make it into a fitting symbol of the new nation, they tore down the minaret and Frankish tower, removing all the later accretions to get back to the origins of the thing: a pagan temple to an elusive Greek goddess whose name was the same as the city itself, Athena.

Museums are also shrines to a Greek muse, intended to be places devoted to inspiration and epiphany. And yet, after Napoleon and his secularizing revolution, when religious statues were placed in such a shrine, they were subtly redefined as national treasure. As Nietzsche quipped in his Genealogy of Morals, “if a temple is to be created, then a temple must be destroyed.”

Loot the Parthenon in order to make a Museum.

Lord Elgin looted an ancient Greek temple in the name of British glory, installing the marbles eventually in a new kind of modern shrine, a museum. Athens has now built a glorious new museum to hold the marbles Lord Elgin did not take, in tandem with plaster casts of the ones that are still in London. The Greeks are now demanding the return of all the marbles, which would tear a very large hole in the British Museum collection.

In all of these debates about history and national identity, about national treasure and the virtues of repatriation—and very much as Quatremère lamented—it is the ancient religiosity of the pieces that have been lost to view.

II. Iconoclasm, Greek-Christian Style

In the month that has passed since the dramatic and long-awaited opening of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, many things have changed. And most of these changes have been rather different than the ones intended or envisioned by the architects’ and the politicians’ original designs.

To be sure, the Museum has initiated a whole new debate about the politics of repatriation: these debates have been joined by some unlikely and unexpected public figures, and have generated some memorable sound bites.

Some of the changes at the New Akropolis Museum have had a comic touch. After only a week or so of the initial opening, photography was suddenly forbidden inside the Museum, except on the third and final floor, where the absent Elgin marbles would go. I myself witnessed several altercations between some long-suffering museum guards and indignant Greek visitors about this prohibition.

The irony was not lost on these native Greek visitors: this new Museum, allegedly designed to “liberate” the Greeks and their marbles, is now limiting the very free access it had originally promised to them.

But the reasons for the photography ban are practical, not political. The open glass walkways designed by Bernard Tschumi enable a visitor on the first floor to gaze skyward and see portions of the third floor, where this museological pilgrimage is ultimately heading. The whole orientation of this museum is designed to direct the visitor’s gaze upward, to the dramatic empty spaces on the third floor that this museum encourages us to fill.

Unfortunately, the glass walkways also offer the marveling visitor an unobstructed glimpse beneath the loose summer wardrobes of the visitors who have preceded them to the third floor. So, no more photography; not for the marbles’ sakes, but for the sake of the modern visitor (who is not supposed to be gazed at in the way we would a statue).

A more recent change is far more ominous. The New Acropolis Museum also offers an illuminating 20-minute video, screened alternately in Greek and in English, continuously throughout the day. After describing the mechanics and architectonics of the temple’s construction, the video turns to the long subsequent history of this monument.

By far the most powerful moment in the film comes just here, when a series of video animations depict the various depredations to which this wonderful monument, so human in scale and initial conception, has been subject.

The first of these depredations was when Greek Christians first converted the Parthenon into a Christian basilica. The video depicts these very Christians chiseling the faces off of most of the sculptures and friezes visible near the entrance. That jarring image—of Greek Christians destroying an ancient Greek monument—is powerfully bookended by the final images of Elgin’s men doing much the same thing, 1500 years later. (Ironically, Elgin looted out of love, not religious animosity).

Enter the Orthodox Christian Church, and the curious reintroduction of religion to this museum. The Athenian leadership howled at this depiction of such embarrassing images in a video montage meant for all the world to see. They insisted that these images—images of Christian iconoclasm—be, well… destroyed.

That’s right. Modern Christians are calling for the destruction of images of ancient Christians destroying images; thereby ironically proving the video’s initial point. Christian iconoclasm has a very long history indeed.

The Museum, much to its discredit, has assented to the Church’s demands. During my last visit to the New Acropolis Museum, just three weeks after my first, the video had been edited to remove the offending fragment. In its place, the film now informs us that “the first great catastrophe” in the Parthenon’s long history came in the second century, when a great fire damaged the building and some of its decorative fixtures. Then we move on the evils of the Venetians, of the Ottomans, and of Elgin himself.

It is all very strange, and invites further reflection on the power and the purpose of the modern art museum. When religion is deleted from the museum, it tends to be replaced by nationalism. The Greek Orthodox Church no doubt objected to these film images for a variety of reasons, some of them Greek and some of them Orthodox. It is untoward to see Greeks desecrating a Greek temple; it is equally disconcerting to see Christians engaging in a theatrical feat of destruction we tend to associate with the Taliban, not the modern Church.

So, both as Greeks and as Christians, the Church called for a significant editing of the museum’s video. And won their way.

We are all the losers for this.