Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Saturday, 20 June 2009 11:32 UK

Acropolis museum raises Marbles' hopes

As the new Acropolis museum opens in Athens, Frank Partridge investigates whether the long-running dispute between Britain and Greece over the Parthenon Marbles will be resolved.

New Acropolis Museum

Museums are not renowned as places of high drama, but everything about the glassy, angular structure that has appeared at the foot of Acropolis Hill is dramatic.

The design is provocative, the contents breathtaking, and its showpiece gallery is intended to deliver a cultural and political thunderbolt as powerful as anything the goddess Athena once threw.

Five years after Athens staged a resoundingly successful Olympic Games, the pride of the city has shifted from sport to art.

As I waited to meet the man who has brought this about, I did an unscientific survey in a cafe across the street.

"I'm convinced the Marbles will come back," said Apostolos.

Anna said: "This is a key monument in world history. It should be complete."

"We'll always admire the British if they do the honourable thing," said Yannis.

Ordinary Athenians, stopping for morning coffee on the way to the office, really care about the legacy of their ancestors. They learn about it on their mother's knee. It is part of their DNA.

Marble dispute

The dispute that evokes such strong feelings has been running for nearly 200 years, since a Scottish earl with impeccable connections won the right to "rescue" what he could from Acropolis Hill before time, warfare, pollution and vandals destroyed it once and for all.

Parthenon Marbles
The Marbles have been on display in the British Museum since 1817

Of the 115 delicately sculpted marble panels that circumscribed the temple with a depiction of the annual Panathenaic Procession, 23 have been lost permanently.

Lord Elgin cannot be blamed for that.

But of the remaining 92 slabs, the majority - 56 - have been in the British Museum since he sold them to the nation in 1816.

The sale was sealed by an Act of Parliament, so the trustees of the museum have been able to fend off polite enquiries about returning them ever since.

Also, they have been able to argue - with some justification - that the Marbles are beautifully presented in the Duveen Gallery, that they are free-to-view for an international audience, that nobody does museums quite like the British and that if they agree to give the Elgin Marbles (Parthenon Marbles) back, every museum in the Western world will be stripped bare.

Breathtaking views

But these arguments hold much less water now the new Acropolis Museum has arrived.

The Parthenon Temple can be seen from the museum

It stakes its claim immediately, with a sign at the entrance describing the Parthenon Gallery as a "dress rehearsal" for a "permanent exhibition of the entire frieze".

The first two floors are remarkable enough, presenting several thousand relics from the sacred hill in such a way that the public can walk around them, touch them, get to grips with them.

So many other museums rope you off, keep you at arm's length, present their treasures through thickened glass.

But it is the third floor that takes the breath away.

Set at a different angle to the rest of the building, with its corners jutting out over the edge, the Parthenon Gallery is in precise alignment with the temple 300m (984ft) above it, and contains a sculpted, rectangular frieze 160m long, just as the Parthenon once did.

The absent marbles, many of which are in London, are represented by plaster cast replicas.

Uncovering the past

The man who has made it his mission to reunite the two sets of marbles is Dimitrios Pandermalis, a twinkly-eyed, softly-spoken professor of classical archaeology who has steered the project through the choppiest of waters for nine difficult years, but now speaks with the confidence of a man who knows his time is at hand.

Part of the urban settleman found during the construction of the New Acropolis Museum
The uncovered settlement has been incorporated into the museum

Plunge a spade anywhere in the Athens topsoil and you are likely to disturb a fragment of antiquity, so it was no surprise when the construction team preparing the ground for the steel piles that would support the building uncovered, not just an urn or two, but a sizeable urban settlement from the 4th Century BC.

"We simply adjusted the building around it," recalled Professor Pandermalis.

Re-calculating a set of new positions for the piles might have taxed a rocket scientist, but the professor made it sound like a quick scribble on the back of an envelope.

But then, the Greeks do know a thing or two about maths and physics.

'Cultural vandalism'

All the other hurdles in the museum's path seem trivial in comparison, even though the necessary removal of 25 modern dwellings kept local planning lawyers in fees for years.

Already, the building has survived two powerful earthquakes.

"The museum rocked like a boat," said the professor, "but it has internal suspension.

"Nothing was disturbed."

"What's really a problem," he said, "is to have a body of one figure in Athens and a head in London; or a foot in London and the leg to which it belongs in Athens.

"This is cultural vandalism," he exclaims, before adding diplomatically, "dating back 200 years, of course."

Professor Pandermalis does not want to make an enemy of the British Museum, all he wants to restore a narrative in marble that, two and a half millennia ago, laid the foundations of Western civilisation.

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