The Acropolis museum 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 that “The whole world can now see the most important sculptures from the Parthenon together. Some are missing. It is time to heal the wounds on the monument by returning” those.
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.
Among the exhibits are small sculptures recently returned from Italy, The Vatican and Germany.
Elgin, a Scotsman, removed about half the surviving sculptures between 1801-04, when Greece was occupied by Ottoman Turks.
The British Museum has repeatedly rejected calls for the return of the sculptures. 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.
“It is like looking at a family picture and seeing images of loved ones far away or lost to us,” Samaras said.
With about 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, the new museum 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.