A new, hypermodern museum at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens has a defiant purpose: to convince Britain to give back the symbols of ancient Greek glory, the 2,500-year-old sculptures of the Parthenon that were pried off the temple by Lord Elgin two centuries ago.
For decades, the main argument against the return of the sculptures — known as the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles — was Greece's lack of a suitable location for their display. The new Acropolis Museum is a stunning rebuttal.
Designed by Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi, the five-story building has an area of 226,000 square feet. Its glass-covered exterior walls reflect the images of the Parthenon and surrounding ruins.
The museum is the new home for hundreds of statues from the Archaic and Classical eras. Randomly distributed on the floor of a large gallery, the statues appear as if they are part of a crowd milling in the public square, giving visitors one-on-one, close-up contact with the marble ancients.
But the top floor, the Parthenon Gallery, is the museum's showcase, says archaeologist Naya Charmalia, a member of the museum's exhibition team.
"This is the crown of the building, a glass box and glass surfaces, because the major requirement was the visual link to the Acropolis. You can see the monument and at the same time the sculptures from the monument," Charmalia says.
'Everyone Understands What Is Missing'
The display space is the same dimension and orientation as the Parthenon looming on the Acropolis hill, just 900 feet away. Thanks to wraparound glass windows, the exhibits bask in the same natural light surrounding the original temple, which was built for the goddess Athena, the protector of the city of Athens below.
Britain's Lord Elgin chiseled off roughly half the sculptures that adorned the Parthenon in the early 1800s, when Greece was an unwilling member of the Ottoman Empire. Later, he sold them to the British Museum.
At the new museum, plaster casts of the sculptures housed in London are interspersed with original pieces Elgin left behind.
Charmalia says the contrast between the stark white plaster and the ancient honey-colored stone has a specific purpose.
"Everyone understands at once what is missing, because if you say numbers, you can't understand, but you can see how many are missing," she says.
Extending for 525 feet, the sculptures of the temple's frieze depict a festival honoring Athena, a procession of worshippers performing rituals, and musical and athletic contests.
Other parts of the temple's exterior — the metopes and pediments — depict legendary battles and mythological scenes.
While pressure on the British Museum has increased, its spokeswoman, Hannah Boulton, firmly rejects repatriating the chiseled marbles to Greece.
"They are now museum objects. They are objects of world art. And as such, there is no problem in terms of them being divided between two different museums and telling two different, but complementary stories," she says.
Issue Of National And Cultural Pride
Nevertheless, Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pandermalis says his aim is to reunify the entire composition close to its original setting.
"We have from the same figure, half of the body in Athens, half of the body in London. We have a body in London and a head in Athens. We have horses in London, and the tails of the horses are in Athens. It is a moral problem in art of divided monuments," he says.
British Museum officials concede that it could loan some of the sculptures, as long as Greece recognizes its ownership of the artifacts. It's a proposal Pandermalis rejects.
"They don't belong to the British, they don't belong to us. They belong to history. They are not pieces of trade," he says.
The campaign for the return of the sculptures is part of the international debate over ownership of cultural property.
For Greeks, the return of the Parthenon Marbles is an issue of national and cultural pride.
Maro Kakridi-Ferrari, professor in the philosophy department of Athens University, says the Parthenon — and what it symbolizes — were traumatized by the sculptures' removal.
"They are the material proof of what democracy has built in Athens of the Classical period," she says. "They are identified with the glory of ancient Greece, and they are part of the national identity."