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New Acropolis Museum and the Elgin Marbles

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The New Acropolis Museum, a project that the New York Times called “one of the highest-profile cultural projects undertaken in Europe in this decade,” is celebrating its opening day on Saturday after years of planning and labor–33 years in all, eight since the design was chosen. The stunning modern building, designed by New York architect Bernard Tschumi, allows visitors to view the Parthenon from balconies and see archaeological remains through glass floors. It boasts 226,000 square feet of glass, 150,000 square feet of display space spanning five floors, and 4,000 artifacts. However, perhaps the most important statement made in this museum’s opening is not what it has, but what it is missing: The Elgin Marbles.

For all of the beauty and history encompassed in the existing displays, they are incomplete. According to the AP,   

The Parthenon was built between 447-432 B.C., at the height of ancient Athens’ glory, in honor of the city’s patron goddess, Athena.

Despite its conversion into a Christian church, and Turkish occupation from the 15th century, it survived virtually intact until a massive explosion caused by a Venetian cannon shot in 1687.

About half the surviving sculptures were removed by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, while Greece was still an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire.

Most belong to a frieze depicting a religious procession that ran round the top of the temple.

I studied abroad on the island of Lesvos in Greece in the summer of 2007, and we took a ferry to Athens to visit the Acropolis. I took this photo of the casts of the six Caryatid statues, which replaced the originals in 1979, when they were moved to the old Acropolis Museum to keep them from being damaged any further by atmospheric pollution (note the black stains on the casts). Only five of the six originals were replaced because one was–and is to this day–housed in the British Museum.

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It was around 115 degrees Farenheit on that day I visited the Acropolis. Greece was in the middle of a record-setting heat wave, and I was standing under the hot sun wearing a cheap white baseball cap that had “Athens” (poorly) embroidered on it, forced to buy it by my Greek-American professor who wouldn’t let us go up there without something covering our heads, fearing we would suffer from heat stroke on top of that giant rock. My group members and I kept our physical exertions to a minimum, even avoiding speech to conserve energy. Yet when our Greek tour guide came to her discussion of the Elgin Marbles, she was as animated as if she were delivering this speech for the first time, in an air-conditioned room, to the board of directors of the British Museum. She thought of Lord Elgin’s act as the highest form of cultural vandalism and that this vandalism was being perpetuated by the British, who were claiming an important piece of Greek history as theirs to display.

that the Elgin Marbles are displayed in an international cultural context, free of charge, and that it legally owns the collection. On Thursday, June 11, the British Museum offered to loan the Elgin Marbles to Greece–for three months. The Greek government declined because, as a condition of the loan, the British Museum required recognition of its ownership rights.

What do you think? We know who’s got the marbles…but who should have them?

Fast Facts

The old Acropolis Museum was much smaller–it was built into the rock of the Acropolis in 1874 and was only able to house 10% of the artifacts included in this museum. It closed to the public in 2007.

The museum cost nearly $200 million to build, but it only costs 1 euro ($1.40) for you to visit, which you can do starting on Sunday.

Photos: Above, NYTimes; Below Sarah Aldrich

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