It was a delicately choreographed feat of engineering. At 9 a.m. Sunday, a crate containing one of the world's most precious historical antiquities – part of the Parthenon frieze – temporarily took flight, soaring hundreds of feet in the air as it was moved for the first time from the Acropolis to a new resting place.
The 2.3-ton marble frieze was the first of about 4,500 sculptures and artifacts that will be transferred over the next three months from the Acropolis to a bold new glass-and-concrete museum at the foot of the famous hill. But the new museum will be defined as much by what is not there as what is.
Missing when the museum opens sometime next year will be the famous Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, after the 19th-century British earl who hacked them from the ancient building, hauled them to England, and sold them to the British Museum. Nearly 200 years later, the British Museum continues to hold nearly half the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon. Greece hopes the new museum will intensify pressure on London to return them.
"This [the museum] is a most exceptional work that will bring together the world and will show everyone that the Parthenon Marbles belong here in Greece, not thousands of miles away," said Greece's minister of culture, Michalis Liapis.
The long-running cultural controversy over the marbles is also one of the most emotive such debates in the world, in part because few other ancient artifacts are both so central to a nation's identity and so widely revered as a symbol of Western civilization.
The modern campaign for the sculptures' return dates to 1982, when the then-culture minister of Greece, actress Melina Mercouri, called for their return at a UN conference. But recent investigations by historians have shown that the removal of the marbles, which the Earl of Elgin said was approved by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was contentious even at the time.
But Greeks, and their supporters, see the new museum as a powerful argument that the time has come for the marbles to return home.
"One of the arguments in the past that was always used was, if only Athens had a proper exhibition space for the marbles and if only the Greeks showed themselves able to look after and exhibit the marbles satisfactorily, it would be a different matter," says Anthony Snodgrass, a retired professor of classical archeology at Cambridge University and chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. Now "everybody will be able to see for themselves what is being perpetuated by keeping the two halves of the marbles apart. And this will be graphically displayed in the new museum."
Bernard Tschumi, the dapper Swiss-born, US-based architect who designed the museum, says the missing marbles are central to his design. The top floor of the museum is precisely aligned with the Parthenon, which can be seen through glass windows.
The marbles – both the ones Greece owns as well as casts of those held in Britain – will be displayed in their original order, around a wall the shape and size of the Parthenon. Museum curators are considering covering the casts in gauze, to highlight the real marbles' absence.
"I'm probably one of the only architects who realized that they are a narrative, a story," says Mr. Tschumi. "My hope and probably my goal is that one day the marbles will be reunited and people can know the story all at once, in one single place, within the architecture."
The British Museum says that there is still an important reason to keep some of the marbles in England. Only there, it argues, can the marbles be shown in a global context, next to artifacts from other contemporary civilizations as well as those that were inspired by Athenian democracy and Greek civilization.
"The very purpose of the British Museum is to present a unique overview of world civilization, and the Parthenon Marbles are an integral part of that," says Hannah Boulton, a spokesperson for the museum.
But supporters of the return now believe that the question now is when, not if, the marbles will be returned.
"If you ask people, will they have them back in 100 years, they would say for sure. In 50 years? I would have thought that overwhelmingly likely. Twenty years? That's more doubtful," says Snodgrass. "The problem at the moment is that there's not yet a really serious dialogue going on."