Antiquities in Motion: Athens Makes Room (and Another Request) for Acropolis Marbles

Huge cranes began moving antiquities off Athens' Acropolis down to a new museum built to hold them at the base of the citadel. In a not-so-subtle challenge to London, space has been set aside for the Parthenon marbles still held by the British Museum.

Ancient sculptures began making their way down from Athens' Acropolis via a series of cranes to a new museum built specifically to hold them and the so-called Elgin Marbles, housed in the British Museum. The only problem now is to get the museum in London to give the treasures back.

Three huge cranes are being used to relay well-packaged crates of antiquities 400 meters (1,300 feet) to the new Acropolis Museum below. Over 4,500 antiquities, most of which are marble sculptures from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., will make the trip after being enclosed in Styrofoam-filled boxes made of plywood and metal. The artefacts have been insured for €400 million ($567 million), and the move is expected to take between six weeks and three months.

The new museum at the foot of the citadel will reserve its third and top floor for the marbles of the Parthenon frieze, roughly 80 percent of which still exists. About two thirds of what remains is housed in London's British Museum. Greek authorities have been attempting to get the museum to repatriate the so-called Elgin Marbles for decades. Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin took the sculptures from the Parthenon and shipped them to London in the late 19th century.

According to Greek Culture Minister Michalis Liapis, the British Museum has refused to return the marbles citing the lack of a fitting venue to display them. Regarding the new museum, Liapis said: "It is a museum that protects, secures, preserves and displays the sculptures of the Parthenon with the best and safest method, with the result that it gives a new impetus to the request for the reunion of the Parthenon marbles -- a global request."

The issue of antiquities and ownership is a hotly contested one in political, curatorial and academic circles. According to the British Museum, the sculptures will remain in its possession. The museum has loaned pieces of its collection on many occasions. According to a museum statement, it has "never received a normal request for any of the Parthenon sculptures. What successive Greek governments have always sought is the permanent removal of all the sculptures to Athens."

The museum's third floor will hold the parts of the frieze that are in Greek possession. Replicas of the pieces held in the British Museum will join them, but they will be covered in symbolic veils.

The Parthenon is the temple built to honor Athena, the city's patron goddess, at the height of the city's power in the second half of the fifth century B.C. The temple consisted of a large, walled room with a colonnade running around it on the temple's outside. The 160-meter frieze ran around the top outer part of the central room and depicted humans, gods and animals taking part in a procession in honor of Athena. The temple was severely damaged in 1687 after a large amount of gunpowder being stored within it exploded.

The new glass, steel and concrete museum was designed by architect Bernard Tschumi at a cost of €129 million ($182 million). It replaces the 130-year-old museum atop the Acropolis and is expected to open in late 2008.

jtw/ap/reuters

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