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New Acropolis Museum Turns 11 Without Stolen Parthenon Marbles

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Τhe Acropolis Museum in Athens. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Yiorgos Kontarinis)

ATHENS - The New Acropolis Museum, built specifically to end the British Museum’s claim Greece had no suitable place to showcase the stolen Parthenon Marbles kept in the London institution, turned 11 on June 20 - but without the treasures it was designed to hold.

As the British Museum’s reasons for refusing to give back what belongs to Greece keep being discredited, Greek governments have tried different approaches, apart from the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA which said the Marbles weren’t Greek, but the world’s.

Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis first asked only for them to be loaned for Greece’s 2021 celebration of 200 years of independence from the Ottoman Occupation, during which Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin stole them, in a deal with the Turks.

But now Culture Minister Lina Mendoni has renewed a push for them to be returned despite British Museum officials repeating they never will, under any conditions or circumstances, for no reason, and that they belong to the British now.

“Since September 2003 when construction work for the Acropolis Museum began, Greece has systematically demanded the return of the sculptures on display in the British Museum because they are the product of theft,” Mendoni told the Greek newspaper Ta Nea.

“The current Greek government – like any Greek government – is not going to stop claiming the stolen sculptures which the British Museum, contrary to any moral principle, continues to hold illegally,” she said, an argument that has fallen on deaf ears.

Her government, however, hasn’t picked up a legal challenge that began with the party’s former leader, Antonis Samaras, was premier and had noted attorney Amal Clooney - the wife of actor George Clooney, a champion for their return - hired to get them back.

That suit was dropped by SYRIZA under then-premier Alexis Tsipras who didn’t fight for their return legally, saying diplomatic means should be taken, which haven’t worked for generations and show no signs of doing so.

Even most Britons believe they should be returned as other museums in the world have responded to calls and demands to return stolen goods taken over the ages, the British notorious for plundering its former colonies especially. 

“It is sad that one of the world’s largest and most important museums is still governed by outdated, colonialist views,” she added, although no British government has been moved enough to press the British Museum.

After winning July 7, 2019 snap elections, ousting the Leftists, Mitsotakis picked up the baton and offered to allow treasures never exhibited outside Greece for a London exhibit if the marbles being reunited with “a monument of global cultural heritage.”

But his government hasn’t used its veto power to make the marbles return a condition for the United Kingdom’s ongoing negotiations to leave the EU, after which Greece will lose any leverage it now has.

The likelihood of return grew less when the British Museum’s director - German Hartwig Fischer, the first not to be British - said the theft was a “creative act” and indicated essentially that hell would freeze over before Greece would see them returned.

Half of the 160-meter (525-feet) frieze is in London, with only 50 meters (164-feet)  in Athens and other pieces displayed in a total of eight other museums across Europe, which haven’t returned those pieces either and weren’t being pressed as is the British Museum.

Last year more than 14.5 million people visited the new Acropolis Museum, which is ranked  among the most popular and cultural institutions globally, the British newspaper The Guardian reported in a feature on the battle for the marbles.

For those who want the sculptures back in Athens, the Acropolis Museum’s top-floor Parthenon gallery is the perfect antidote to the dark Duveen gallery in the British Museum, the paper said, the Greek museum lined up to see the Parthenon close by and over.

Some 2,500 years after its construction, the Acropolis is viewed as Pericles’ greatest triumph, testimony, say admirers, to his role in the achievements of the Golden Age, the newspaper’s feature by Helena Smith noted.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson - who has some Turkish heritage - said the marbles aren’t going to leave his country’s top museum, saying they were “rescued, quite rightly, by Elgin,” not stolen.

Former British leader Tony Blair put the issue this way, earlier telling the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the sculptures had been in a box marked “too hot to handle.”