The opening of the New Acropolis Museum will almost certainly reignite the debate over the Elgin Marbles.
The museum, which is expected to open in early 2009 after 30 years in conception, has even reserved a space for the missing sculptures in optimistic anticipation of their return.
The Elgin marbles, which were removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century, and sold to the British Museum, now remain in its Duveen Gallery, to the distress of the Greek government.
At present the British Museum’s policy remains the same, that the marbles, which are the largest collection of Parthenon sculptures outside of Greece, are staying put.
In the know in Athens
The Greek government’s appeals have had more luck elsewhere – it has already received a slab of the Parthenon frieze from the Salinas Museum in Palermo, where it has hung for more than 200 years, but will now take its place in the New Acropolis Museum.
It portrays the draped lower leg, ankle and foot of a seated goddess, believed to be Artemis.
Missing body parts like this are commonplace in the Athens frieze – the new museum displays its original pieces and missing parts are shown in glaring white plaster chunks. The Greek government hopes these sections will gradually be replaced by the genuine artefacts.
Commenting on the Italian gesture, Anthony Snodgrass, chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles said: “Following on the return of the ‘Heidelberg foot’, a somewhat smaller fragment from the Parthenon’s North Frieze, two years ago, and of a piece from another Acropolis temple, the Erechtheion, by a retired Swedish teacher a little later, it looks like part of an inexorable chain reaction.
“We are looking forward to the news of further returns of Parthenon fragments, from other European museums.”
One of the arguments that has kept the marbles in London concerns the lack of suitable space and environment in which to display them in Athens, but the opening of the state-of-the-art museum will quash that tack.
Architect Bernard Tschumi designed the museum to allow the sculptures to be seen in natural light, but high-spec glass and climate-control ensures they are not damaged by sunlight. The piece de la resistance is the top floor, where visitors will be able to see the frieze, then turn their back to look at the Parthenon.
The Greeks hope that public opinion will sway in their favour following the museum’s opening. The museum expects to receive some two million visitors a year – a sizeable chunk of the 13 million who visit the site of the Acropolis annually.
Currently opinion is divided – a 2008 Mori poll of 2,100 people found that 50 per cent of people were familiar with the marbles debate, and 69 per cent of them believe the marbles should be returned to Athens.
Regardless of your stand on the debate, the New Acropolis Museum, and its priceless treasures housed in a stunning modern building at the base of the Acropolis, is a must see.