Greece opened its long-anticipated new Acropolis Museum this past week­end, boosting its decades-old campaign for the return of 2,500-year-old sculptures removed from the ancient citadel by a 19th-century British diplomat.

After years of delays and legal wrangling, the museum opened its doors to the public on Sunday at a nominal charge of about $1.60 — the price of a public bus ticket.

Saturday night’s lavish opening ceremony, which had a nearly $4.7-million price tag, was attended by foreign heads of state and government, whose presence was seen as a tacit approval of the marbles’ return.

But the party was tinged with a sense of loss. “We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts,” said Culture Minister Antonis Samaras. “We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in 5th-century (BC) Athens, because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometres away.”

The museum is the centrepiece of Greece’s efforts to regain the Parthenon Marbles — sculptures that were part of a stunning 160-metre 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 and 432 BC in honour of the city’s patron goddess, Athena.

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 been displayed ever since.

“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. 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 abduction of these sculptures is not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world,” Samaras said. “They were made to be seen in sequence and in total, something that cannot happen as long as half of them are held hostage in the British Museum.”

The British Museum has rejected repeated requests to send the marbles home.

It counters 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.

Samaras has already rejected such a suggestion, saying instead 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.”

One of the main arguments against returning the sculptures had been a lack of an appropriate place to house them. Many maintained that by removing the marbles, Elgin had ultimately protected them from damage by acid rain and pollution.

But the new $205-million glass and concrete museum at the foot of the ancient citadel is Greece’s reply.

Holding more than 4,000 ancient works in 14,000 square metres of display space, the museum’s highlight is its top story. The glass hall displays the section of the Parthenon frieze that Elgin left behind, next to plaster casts of the works in London — which Greece hopes one day to replace with the originals from the British Museum.

“In essence it will be a constant, silent denunciation” of the Parthenon Marbles’ continued absence, Samaras said. The new museum, the minister said, “is a catalyst for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.”

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