The museum will host treasures from the ancient Acropolis of Athens

The opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, the Greek capital, is a major cultural event.

It also, and quite deliberately as far as the Greeks are concerned, re-ignites passions and debate around one of the longest-running cultural controversies in the world. 

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Museum highlights Greece's pride and pain
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The museum will host treasures from the ancient Acropolis of Athens.

But some of the most important of these - including many marble sculptures from the Parthenon temple - are faraway on the other side of Europe, in the British Museum in London.

By building this impressive new museum, the Greeks believe they have made a compelling case for everything to be returned to Athens.

And yet, the initial signals coming from the British should give the Greeks little ground for encouragement.

The new museum has been several decades in planning, and has cost some $200 million. A bold and striking modern building, it is located right at the foot of the hill of the ancient Acropolis.

It sits above ancient ruins, and looms over the tightly packed Athenian streets. Inside, it is flooded with natural light, and its galleries provide a spacious and calm contrast to the congested chaos of the city. 

The wonderful statues and sculptures capture the glory of ancient Greece, from where came the ideas and philosophies that still shape our world. The museum's crowning glory is its top floor, or Parthenon gallery.

Plaster subsitutes

Here, with the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple in clear view on the nearby hill, the entire frieze, a series of sculptures portraying an ancient procession, is displayed in exactly the same order and dimensions as they would have been on the temple.

The only snag is that large parts of the frieze (and the outer panels, known as metopes) are not in Greece's possession and these gaps have been filled in with plaster-cast substitutes.

The museum sits above ancient ruins and looms over tightly packed Athenian streets
To explain how this situation came about, we need to go back about 200 years, to the beginning of the 19th century, when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Much has been written on how the 7th Lord Elgin, Britain's ambassador to the Ottomans, obtained controversial permission to remove some of the Parthenon sculptures and take them back to Britain.

Lord Elgin’s supporters have tried to portray him as an altruistic conservationist, concerned with rescuing Greece's ancient heritage, whilst his many detractors describe him as a plundering imperialist.

The truth may be somewhere in-between, but in any case Lord Elgin ended up selling "his" marbles to the British government, who placed them in London's British Museum, where they have been ever since.

Bernard Tschumi is the Swiss-American architect of the new Acropolis Museum. He told me he had only "unformed thoughts" on the Parthenon marble controversy when he started out on this project.

But now, he says, "When I got to know what it meant, I became increasingly committed, when I realised [the marbles] told one single story, I saw they cannot be broken up".

Greece's minister of culture, Antonis Samaras, is more forthright.

He says: "Imagine if Picasso's Guernica or da Vinci's Mona Lisa were in two or three parts, scattered round Europe; would you not want them put back together?." 

Artefacts 'vandalised'

Now, according to Samaras, "the injustice that was made, we want it once and for all cleared and finished".

"We know these items were vandalised, they just took part of the front of a whole piece of art just to put it in a foreign museum; this is something that  no-one can accept." 

But in London, there is no sign that the British Museum's trustees are contemplating giving the Marbles back.  

They argue that their museum, with no entry charge, is the most visited in the world - six million people pass through its doors each year. 

Hannah Boulton, a spokeswomen for the British Museum, says the existing situation, with about half the surviving Marbles in London, and the other half in the new museum in Athens, is a happy medium that enables the optimum number of people to see them in different contexts.

The British Museum’s trustees are unwilling to give historic marble artifacts to the Greek 
In the British Museum, it is possible to compare the Greek Marbles with  treasures from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome and so on, and understand how different ancient civilizations adapted and influenced each other, in a way that would never be possible in Athens. 

"All civilisations can be seen here in one building", Boulton says, and "obviously the Parthenon sculptures are a very important part of that mission, so the trustees feel its very important that they remain here as part of this worldwide collection".

Greeks are united in their insistence that the Marbles should be brought back.

Without them, the Parthenon continues to evoke not only feelings of pride, but also pain and loss.

After a torrid few months, of political scandal, street riots and the re-emergence of domestic extremist groups, the opening of the new Acropolis Museum provides many people here with pride and satisfaction.

But until it houses all the treasures it was built for, it will, somehow, feel incomplete.

Source: Al Jazeera