Acropolis Museum Accents Lost Sculptures

ATHENS - Greece opens its long-anticipated new Acropolis Museum today, boosting its decades-old campaign for the return of 2,500-year-old sculptures removed from the ancient citadel by a 19th-century British diplomat.

After years of delays and legal wrangling, the museum opens its doors to the public tomorrow at a nominal $1.40 charge - the price of a public bus ticket.

Tonight's lavish opening ceremony, which comes with a nearly $4.1 million price tag, is to be attended by foreign heads of state and government, whose attendance is seen as a tacit approval of the marbles' return.
Confirmed guests include Recep Tayyip Erdogan - prime minister of Turkey, which rose out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire that ruled Greece at the time the sculptures were looted.

The museum is the centerpiece of Greece’s efforts to regain the Parthenon Marbles - sculptures that were part of a stunning 525-foot marble frieze of a religious procession that adorned the top of the ancient citadel's grandest structure, the Parthenon.

The temple was built at the height of Athens' glory between 447 and 432 B.C. in honor of the city's patron goddess, Athena.

A projection depicting ancient
Greek sculptures was displayed
at the Acropolis Museum yesterday.

Britain's envoy, Lord Elgin, pried them off the building in the early 1800s while Greece was still an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire. Facing bankruptcy, he eventually sold the artworks to the British Museum, where they have been displayed ever since.

This was an act of barbarism that can be corrected," museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said yesterday. "It's not an issue of pointing a finger at the British Museum, but of building bridges . . . that can correct the unfortunate historic event of 1800."

The return of the Parthenon Marbles is an issue of national pride in Greece, and successive governments have waged a high-profile but so far fruitless campaign for their repatriation, saying the sculptures were looted from a work of art so important that its surviving pieces should all be exhibited together.

The British Museum has rejected repeated requests to send the marbles home, countering that it legally owns the collection and that it is displayed free of charge in an international cultural context.

I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days," said British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton.

The Acropolis Museum is obviously going to be a fantastic new museum. . . . It's obviously going to be wonderful to finally be able to see all the sculptures that remain in Athens on public display," Boulton said. "But . . . here in the British Museum, they can tell this equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures."

Culture Minister Antonis Samaras has rejected such a suggestion, saying instead he would be prepared to discuss lending Greek antiquities to the London museum "to fill the gap left when the Marbles finally return to the place where they belong."

One of the main arguments against returning the sculptures had been a lack of an appropriate place to house them. Many maintained that by removing the marbles, Elgin had ultimately protected them from damage by acid rain and pollution.

But the new $180 million glass and concrete museum at the foot of the ancient citadel is Greece's reply.

Holding more than 4,000 ancient works in 150,000 square feet of display space, the museum's highlight is its top story.

The glass hall displays the section of the Parthenon frieze that Elgin left behind, next to plaster casts of the works in London - which Greece hopes one day to replace with the originals.

In essence it will be a constant, silent denunciation" of the Parthenon Marbles' continued absence, Samaras said.

(Posting date 23 June 2009)

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