Thousands of ancient artifacts from the Acropolis never seen by the public will be showcased at a landmark new Athens museum expected to open late next year, Greek officials said yesterday. The 14,000-square-meter (150,000-square-foot) exhibition area will contain more than 4,000 works – 10 times the amount currently on display at a cramped museum on the Acropolis. Most have been kept in storage for decades. «We are talking about masterpieces that have never been seen,» including bronze and pottery artifacts found on the slopes of the fortified hill, said senior project official Nikos Damalitis. All the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures in Greek possession will be displayed on a full-sized model of the temple inside the museum, which is being built at the foot of the Acropolis hill. But one part of the model will remain empty where the so-called Elgin Marbles – sculptures removed from the Parthenon 200 years ago – would have stood. The marbles are housed in London’s British Museum, and Greece has lobbied unsuccessfully for years for their return. «I believe we can intensify our efforts (for the marbles to be returned) and find a different approach, perhaps a friendlier one,» Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said after a visit to the museum construction site. «We do not want all the antiquities that have been taken from Greece, we are just interested in the specific artifacts.» The long-delayed 129-million-euro (US$157 million) museum will be completed in March 2007, Voulgarakis said – three months behind earlier forecasts. Voulgarakis did not account for the later completion date, saying only he was «extremely pleased» with the pace of construction. «It is our ambition to have the building finished in a year from now,» he said. Project director Dimitris Pantermalis said the museum will open to visitors by the end of 2007. Initially scheduled for completion before the 2004 Athens Olympics, construction of the 20,000-square-meter glass and concrete museum has been delayed by long-running legal fights and new archaeological discoveries at the site. The two-story building will be capped by a glass hall containing the Parthenon works while allowing visitors a direct view of the ancient temple, some 300 meters away. Pantermalis said some of the sculptures will be installed in the summer, as construction proceeds. «We will start moving the heavy sculptures in July,» he said. «It will be possible to remove them at a later stage, if necessary, and they will be protected against earthquakes.» Greece is highly earthquake-prone, and a 5.9-magnitude quake near Athens in 1999 killed 143 people while damaging thousands of buildings in the capital. Designed by US-based architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greece’s Michael Photiades, the building is based on 94 shock absorbers at ground level. «These will function like ball bearings to isolate the structure,» Damalitis said. The museum will also incorporate, under a glass cover, building remains from a third- to seventh-century Athenian neighborhood discovered in the 1990s during preliminary work on the site.