Sunday, June 21, 2009

Greece's New Acropolis Museum opens to visitors in London

Greece opened its long-awaited Acropolis Museum in Athens on Saturday with a lavish ceremony attended by 400 guests, including many heads of state, and drawing thousands on the heavily policed streets leading to the building.

But for many Greeks, the celebrations were marred by a sense of loss.

"We cann't dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts," Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras said Friday, on the eve of the opening ceremony.

"We cann't illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in 5th-century [BC] Athens because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometres away."

Samaras was referring to the Parthenon marbles on display in the British Museum. British Ambassador Lord Elgin began removing artifacts from the Acropolis in 1799 when Greece was under Ottoman rule and sold 75 metres of the original 160 metres of the frieze that ran around the Parthenon's inner core to the British Museum for £35,000 ($72,000).

The return of the artifacts to Athens has been an issue of national pride in Greece, and successive governments have waged high-profile campaigns for their return.

Conspicuously, there were no government officials from Britain at Saturday's opening festivities.

The museum, spreading across 5 levels at the foot of the Acropolis hill in central Athens, has been the centrepiece of Greece's efforts to repatriate its missing sculptures.

Some smaller pieces were recently returned from Italy, the Vatican and Germany, and are on display in the new building. But the British Museum has steadfastly refused to give up Lord Elgin's treasures.

One of its main arguments against their return had been the lack of an appropriate place to house them in Greece. But the $185-million glass-and-concrete museum, designed by U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi, has a special gallery for the Parthenon marbles on its third floor. The glass hall displays the section of the Parthenon frieze that Elgin left behind next to plaster casts of the works in London.

The copies are stark white plaster, in contrast with the brownish weathered marble of the originals.

At the opening ceremony, Greek President Karolos Papoulias renewed the call for the missing works. "The whole world can now see the most important sculptures from the Parthenon together," he said.

"But some are missing. It is time to heal the wounds on the monument by returning the marbles that belong to it."

Earlier this month, British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton said the London institution would consider lending the marbles to Greece for 3 months for the opening of the new museum.

Samaras said his government could not accept the offer. "Accepting it would legalize the snatching of the marbles and the monument's carving up 207 years ago," he said.

The Acropolis Museum, with its panoramic views of Acropolis hill, holds more than 4,000 works from the golden age of Athenian democracy in 14,000 square metres of display space.

Antique ceramics and sculptures are displayed on the 1st floor.

The Caryatids — columns sculpted as female figures that held up a porch roof on the southern side of the Erechtheum temple — dominate the top of a ramp leading to the second floor.

The 2nd floor features sculptures from the Temple of Athena and the Propylaea entrance to the Acropolis.

Tschumi has said the proximity of the Acropolis itself was a major challenge in designing the building.

The Parthenon "is one of the most perfect buildings… in Western architecture," the French-Swiss architect said.

The museum will be open to the public for a nominal one euro ($1.42) admission, or the price of a bus ticket in Athens, until the end of this year.