Partridge, Frank, The Independent (London, England)
JOURNEY TO THE SOURCE Elgin Marbles question renewed as Athens museum opens
The long-overdue New Acropolis Museum is now scheduled to open in Athens on 20 June. However, the impact will be felt most acutely in Bloomsbury, central London, as one of Britain's longest-running international disputes takes a potentially decisive turn.
Athens' share of the marble sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon temple on Acropolis hill, the crowning achievement of classical Greece, now have a permanent home 300 metres below the original site. The glassy, angular new museum is daring and eye- catching in itself, but it's the contents of the third and top floor - and the way they're arranged - that will make the world sit up and take notice.
The alignment of the building follows the layout of the surrounding streets, at an angle to the Parthenon, but the top floor makes a dramatic shift. As if unconnected with the floors below, the glass enclosure faces in a different direction, with its corners jutting over the edge, precisely aligned with the Parthenon above. The ancient temple fills the gallery's giant picture-window like a Hollywood star on a drive-in movie screen.
Spicing up that architectural flourish is a piece of cultural dynamite. The centrepiece of the top-floor gallery is an exact replica of the 160m-long frieze of delicately sculpted marble that ran along the inner walls of the temple when it was completed in the fifth century BC.
The frieze depicts the annual Panathenaic Procession in honour of the goddess Athena, the high-point of the city's summer festivities. In its original form the frieze consisted of 115 panels, but the ravages of time, warfare, negligence and vandalism have reduced that number to 94. Of the surviving slabs, all but two are in Athens or the British Museum, with the lion's share (56) in London. These, along with 15 metopes (rectangular slabs that were placed over the temple's columns) and a further 17 pedimental figures, are what we know as the Elgin Marbles.
Over the two centuries since workmen employed by the Scottish peer, Lord Elgin, began stripping the Parthenon in the early 1800s, various plaster casts have been made of the missing sections of frieze, enabling the curators of the new museum to reconstruct the complete sculptural narrative, mirroring the precise dimensions of the original. The 36 panels that remained in Athens are safely in their new home - stained brown because they've never been subjected to modern cleaning methods, which strip away some of their skin. Filling the gaps are white plaster copies of the plundered panels, most of which have resided in London since 1816, when Lord Elgin sold his collection to the British government for 36,000.
The absence of the originals on the reconstructed frieze, and the glaring whiteness of the copies put in their place, is a powerful broadside aimed at Britain by a Greek government that is dedicated to bringing the marbles home.
At the museum entrance, a signboard describes the Parthenon Gallery as a "dress rehearsal for a permanent exhibition of the entire frieze". For the Greeks, it's no longer a matter of if the marbles are returned, but when. Bernard Tschumi, the museum's Swiss- born architect, signed off his 130m creation with the words: "I'm convinced the marbles will come back. Their return will make sense straight away."
Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, the academic who has overseen the six-year project, speaks with the quiet certainty of someone who knows his big moment is at hand, after a very Athenian sequence of delays that have postponed the opening by nearly a year. …