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Acropolis Museum to open in Greece

GREECE opens its long-anticipated new Acropolis Museum in Athens today, boosting its decades-old campaign for the return of 2,500-year-old sculptures removed from the citadel by a 19th century British diplomat.

After years of delays and legal wrangling, the museum opens its doors to the public tomorrow at a nominal 1 euro (US$1.40) charge.

Tonight's lavish opening ceremony, which comes with a nearly 3-million-euro price tag, is to be attended by foreign heads of state, whose attendance is seen as a tacit approval of the marbles' return.

Confirmed guests include Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- prime minister of Turkey, whose empire ruled Greece at the time the sculptures were looted.

The museum is the centerpiece of Greece's efforts to regain the Parthenon Marbles -- sculptures that were part of a stunning 160-meter marble frieze of a religious procession that adorned the top of the ancient citadel's grandest structure, the Parthenon.

The temple was built at the height of Athens' glory between 447-432 BC.

Britain's envoy, Lord Elgin, pried them off the building in the early 1800s while Greece was still an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire. Facing bankruptcy, he eventually sold the artworks to the British Museum, where they have remained.

"This was an act of barbarism that can be corrected," museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said. "It's not an issue of pointing a finger at the British Museum, but of building bridges ... that can correct the unfortunate historic event of 1800."

The return of the Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles is an issue of national pride in Greece, and successive governments have waged a high-profile but so far fruitless campaign for their repatriation, saying the sculptures were looted from a work of art so important that its surviving pieces should all be exhibited together.

The British Museum has rejected repeated requests to send the marbles home, countering that it legally owns the collection and that it is displayed free of charge in an international cultural context.

"I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days," said British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton. "The Acropolis Museum is obviously going to be a fantastic new museum. ... It's obviously going to be wonderful to finally be able to see all the sculptures that remain in Athens on public display," Boulton said.

"But ... here in the British Museum, they can tell this equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures."

The British Museum says it only considers loan requests that recognize its ownership of artifacts, and that a loan would not be permanent nor include the whole collection.

Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras has rejected such a suggestion, saying he would be prepared to discuss lending Greek antiquities to the London museum "to fill the gap left when the Marbles finally return to the place where they belong."


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