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Athens is home to a new, hypermodern museum. It stands at the foot of the Acropolis, and it has a defiant purpose: to convince Britain to give back what we know as the Elgin Marbles. They are the 2,500-year-old sculptures from the Parthenon that were pried off the temple by British nobleman Lord Elgin centuries ago.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli recently visited the new museum and has this report.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: For decades, the main argument against the marbles' return 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 walls reflect the images of the Parthenon and surrounding ruins. The museum is the new home for hundreds of Archaic and Classical statues. Randomly distributed on the floor of a large gallery, it's as if they're part of a crowd milling in the public square, giving visitors a one-on-one, close-up contact with the marble ancients. But it's the top floor that's the museum showcase, says archaeologist Naya Charmalia.
Ms. NAYA CHARMALIA (Archaeologist): This is the crown of the building, a glass box and glass surfaces because the major requirement was the visual link to the Acropolis, to the monument. You can see the monument and at the same time the sculptures from the monument.
POGGIOLI: The display space is the same dimension and orientation as the Parthenon looming on the Acropolis hill just 900 feet away. Thanks to the glass wraparound windows, the exhibits bask in the same natural light surrounding the original temple. Roughly half the sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon were chiseled off by Lord Elgin two centuries ago, when Greece was an unwilling member of the Ottoman Empire. He later sold them to the British Museum. Plaster casts of the sculptures housed in London are interspersed with original pieces Lord Elgin left behind. Archeologist Charmalia says the contrast between the stark white plaster and the ancient honey-colored stone has a specific purpose.
Ms. CHARMALIA: Everybody understands at once what is missing, because if you say numbers, you can't understand, but you can see how many are missing.
POGGIOLI: Extending for 525 feet, the sculptures, known as the frieze, depict a festival in honor of the goddess, Athena, a procession of worshippers performing rituals and musical and athletic contests. The other works, known as 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.
Ms. HANNAH BOULTON (Spokeswoman, British Museum): They are now museum objects. They are objects of world art. And as such, I don't think - there is no problem in terms of them being divided between two different museums and telling two different but complementary stories.
POGGIOLI: Nevertheless, Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pandermalis says his aim is to reunify the entire composition close to its original setting.
Mr. DIMITRIOS PANDERMALIS (Director, Acropolis Museum): 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. In London - and the tails of the horses are in Athens. It is a moral problem in art of divided monuments.
POGGIOLI: The British Museum concedes it could loan some of the sculptures, as long as Greece recognizes its ownership of the artifacts, a proposal Pandermalis rejects.
Mr. PANDERMALIS: They don't belong to the British, they don't belong to us. They belong to history. They are not pieces of trade.
POGGIOLI: 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.
Professor MARO KAKRIDI-FERRARI (Philosophy Department, Athens University): They are the material proof of what democracy has built in Athens of the Classical period. They are identified with the glory of ancient Greece, and they are part of the national identity.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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