ATHENS May 29 (Reuters Life!) - After years of delays, Greece's new Acropolis Museum will open its gates to the public in early 2008, giving new impetus to efforts to bring home the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum.
Legal battles and missed deadlines have plagued the building - a large glass structure perched on thick concrete columns - but finally the project is nearing completion and will soon be ready to receive up to 10,000 visitors a day.
"The construction of the museum is expected to be complete by September, when the transfer of the items will begin," Greek Culture Minister George Voulgarakis told a news conference on Tuesday. "We expect it to be open to visitors in the beginning of 2008."
Art now crammed in a tiny building on the Athens Acropolis will slowly begin to be transferred to the new museum but its main purpose is to host the sculptures now in London, known in Britain as the Elgin marbles.
Lord Elgin removed the sculptures from the 5th century BC marble Parthenon temple topping the Acropolis about 200 years ago and sold them to the British Museum.
Greece has for decades fought to get them back. One of the arguments for not returning has been the lack of proper display space.
"The new museum ... will house a great and coherent collection, including whatever comes from the Acropolis and the architectural sculptures we are demanding from the British Museum," Voulgarakis said.
The 14,000 sq m building allows the visitor almost constant eye contact with the Acropolis through transparent glass walls enclosing concrete planes floating on rows of round columns. Glass openings in the ground floor show the excavations beneath it - dating from prehistoric to Byzantine times.
Voulgarakis said three huge cranes will be used to transfer the ancient artefacts the 400 metre (yard) distance from the Acropolis to the new museum. One will pick them up and pass them on to the next, in a painfully slow process expected to last a few months.
"This method, which will be tried for the first time internationally, was chosen on the basis of safety and minimum wear to the archaeological area," Voulgarakis said.
The museum is designed to give visitors a continuous walk up the various historical stages of Greek art, culminating with the Parthenon marbles at the top.