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A breast in London, a foot in Athens

New Acropolis museum puts marble dispute in stark relief.

Visitors look at the temple of the Parthenon from inside the new Acropolis museum in Athens June 21, 2009. Greece has inaugurated its long-delayed Acropolis Museum, with the prime minister calling for the Classical Parthenon marbles, held in Britain for 200 years, to be repatriated. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — Inside the new Parthenon Gallery, atop Athens’ new Acropolis Museum, streaming sunlight illuminates one of the glories of ancient Greece. The goddess Athena, wrought in marble, leaps from her father Zeus’ head, while white horses gallop across the walls.

These are the Parthenon Marbles as they haven’t been seen in more than two centuries. In the black-glass gallery, which sits in the shadow of the Acropolis with the Parthenon in full view, the sculptures are laid out in order, as they would once have been seen on the famous building itself.

But half of the marbles on display are 19th century plaster casts. The originals are far away, in the British Museum.

“We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts,” said Greece’s culture minister, Antonis Samaras. “It is like looking at a family picture and seeing images of loved ones far away or lost to us.”

Greece hopes the opening of the new museum, which was more than 30 years in the making, will be a catalyst for the marbles’ return. They say it shatters one of the British Museum’s main arguments, that Greece had no proper place to display them.

But the British Museum says its position is unchanged.

Katrina Whenham, a spokeswoman, said the marbles are an integral part of the British Museum’s collection and that in London they can be seen in the context of other cultures. About 6 million visitors a year see the marbles held by the British Museum.

In the early 19th century, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed the sculptures from the Parthenon and sold them to the British Museum. A historical debate still rages about the legality of his actions.

“The damage done to the building up there is visible to this day,” said Professor Anthony Snodgrass, chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, as he pointed to 5th century BC temple. “This is vandalism even by the lights of 1807.”

Inside the Parthenon Gallery, the juxtaposition of the casts and original marbles in the museum’s possession highlights their separation.

“Here you can see that the breast is in London, and the foot in Athens,” said Dimitrios Pandermalis, president of the museum, stopping in front of a piece of the frieze during a tour of the gallery “We have this mixture that shows both the problem and the separation of these sculptures.”

Greece, and its supporters, also believe they have a moral claim to the marbles. To many Greeks, the Parthenon and its sculptures are a symbol of ancient Greek civilization, and its contribution to the world.

“They are our identity and our pride,” said Greece’s president, Karolos Papoulias, at the museum’s official opening. “It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles to where they belong.”

Snodgrass said the new museum was a powerful argument for the marbles' return, but that the British Museum would not change its mind immediately in order to save face.

But he was confident the marbles would eventually return to Greece: “All I would say is that it will be less than a 100 years."

More on ancient civilizations:

A tale of two lovers

Lebanon builds on its ancient past ... literally

Empire exhibits hold lessons for America

The other face of the Yucatan

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/europe/090624/breast-london-foot-athens