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Acropolis Museum revives spat with Britain

Image: Acropolis Museum inauguration
The new Acropolis Museum in Athens combines digital projections with a stunning view of the temple of Parthenon.Orestis Panagiotou / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gods, heroes and long-dead mortals stepped off their plinths into the evening sky of Athens on Saturday during the lavish launch of the new Acropolis Museum, a decades-old dream that Greece hopes will also help reclaim a cherished part of its heritage from Britain.

The digital animated display on the museum walls ended years of delays and wrangling over the ultramodern building, set among apartment blocks and elegant neoclassical houses at the foot of the Acropolis hill.

The $4.1 million opening ceremony was attended by some 400 guests, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, and foreign heads of state.

Conspicuously, there were no government officials from Britain, which has repeatedly refused to repatriate dozens of 2,500-year-old sculptures from the Parthenon temple that are held in the British Museum.

President Karolos Papoulias said Greeks think of the Acropolis monuments as their "identity and pride," and renewed the demand for the missing marble works, displayed in London for the past 200 years.

"The whole world can now see the most important sculptures from the Parthenon together," Papoulias said. "Some are missing. It is time to heal the wounds on the monument by returning" those.

Culture Minister Antonis Samaras said the sculptures "will inevitably return," but ruled out Greece acknowledging the British Museum's legal title to the works — as requested by officials in London as a precondition for any loan.

Large crowds watched the heavily policed opening ceremony from nearby cafes, and families gathered on overlooking balconies.

Crouching 300 yards from the Parthenon's slender bones like a skewed stack of glass boxes, the $180 million museum provides an airy setting for some of the best surviving works of classical sculpture that once adorned the Acropolis.

By day, printed glass panels filter the harsh sunlight while revealing the ancient citadel in the background. The internal lighting projects the battered statues outward at night, contrasting with the floodlit ruins on the low hill.

"We tried ... to be as simple, as clear, as precise as we could be establishing a visual relation between the Parthenon, the museum with the beautiful sculptures and with the archaeological remnants," said the building's designer, French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi.

And with a special glass hall designed to showcase all the surviving Parthenon sculptures in their original alignment, the building is Greece's answer to the argument that it had nowhere to safely house those sawed off the temple in the early 1800s by British diplomat Lord Elgin.

Italy, Vatican, Germany returned pieces
Among the exhibits are small sculptures recently returned from Italy, The Vatican and Germany.

The Parthenon was built at the height of Athens' glory, between 447-432 B.C., in honor of the city's patron goddess, Athena, and is still considered one of the most impressive buildings in the world.

A woman stands next to Caryatid statues during the official opening ceremony of the new Acropolis museum on June 20, 2009 in Athens. Designed by celebrated Franco-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, the three-level building set out over a total area of 25,000 square metres (270,000 square feet) will display more than 350 artefacts and sculptures that were previously held in a small museum atop the Acropolis. JOHN KOLESIDIS / POOL

Despite its burning by invading Goths in 267 A.D., conversion into a Christian church in the early 6th century and Ottoman occupation from the 15th century — when it served as a gunpowder store — it survived largely intact until a Venetian cannon shot caused a massive explosion in 1687. Elgin, a Scotsman, removed about half the surviving sculptures between 1801-04, when Greece was an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire.

The British Museum has repeatedly rejected calls for their return. It says it legally owns the collection it bought from Elgin, who sold it to stave off bankruptcy, 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.

But on the top floor of the new Acropolis Museum, Greece's counter-argument — that the sculptures were looted from a work of art so important that the surviving pieces should all be exhibited together — is eloquently laid out.

The glass hall with a panoramic view across Athens and the Parthenon itself displays the section of the frieze that Elgin's agents left behind, joined to plaster casts of the 90-odd works in London.

The soft brownish patina of the original marble contrasts starkly with the bright white of the copies: battle scenes are cut jaggedly in half, with the torso and heads of warriors and horses in London and the legs in Athens. The attempt to shock is deliberate.

"It is like looking at a family picture and seeing images of loved ones far away or lost to us," Samaras said.

Greece has promised to compensate the British Museum with visiting exhibitions of major antiquities.

But the museum is much more than a political lever.

4,000 works displayed
With about 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, it holds more than 4,000 ancient works, many of them never displayed before due to lack of space in the cramped old museum that sat atop the Acropolis hill.

Most left the citadel for the first time in late 2007, during a meticulously choreographed operation using a relay of cranes.

Now visitors can walk among freestanding statues and reliefs with surviving traces of paint; view fragments of sculptures and coins still bearing scorch marks from the Persians' sacking of the city in 480 B.C.; gaze through three stories of glass floors straight into the foundations, where construction revealed an entire neighborhood of ancient and early Christian Athens.

The museum opens to visitors Sunday. The first four days are already completely sold out through Internet sales.