Parthenon Marbles conference report: Academic interchange remains almost completely civil at the British Museum

The restitution question was hardly mentioned, but it tautened everyone’s nerves


The British Museum’s conference on the 1937-38 cleaning of the Parthenon Marbles was conducted with scholarly decorum until the last few minutes, when tempers finally flared. The Greek press attaché was ordered to shut up, author William St Clair was “disinvited” from the closing dinner and for a moment it seemed as if scuffles might break out among the warring academics. Fortunately, sanity quickly prevailed and the two-day conference will go down as another key event in the long saga of the disputed sculptures.

The colloquium raised issues which went considerably further than the marbles themselves. It cast a disturbing light on the earlier management of one of the world’s great museums. In 1937-38 staff at the British Museum (BM) had bowed to the wishes of a major donor, Lord Duveen, and had allowed the most important item in its collection to be subjected to damaging intervention. The wealthy art dealer was funding a new gallery to display the marbles, and he thought they should look whiter. The 2,500-year old sculptures were therefore “cleaned” with copper chisels and carborundum. The museum then instituted a cover-up, and details of the incident remained hushed up until 1998.

Last month’s colloquium followed the publication in June 1998 of the third edition of William St Clair’s Lord Elgin and the Marbles. His book reproduced formerly secret BM papers, including a 1938 internal report on the unauthorised cleaning of the sculptures which admitted that “the damage is obvious and cannot be exaggerated.” These belated revelations were political dynamite, particularly when set against Greek demands for restitution. On 17 June 1998 Culture Secretary Chris Smith announced that the BM would hold an academic conference to examine and discuss the cleaning.

On 30 November and 1 December last year, 300 scholars from across the world assembled in London to consider the evidence. Museum director Robert Anderson opened the proceedings by describing the 1930s cleaning as “one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the BM”. Admitting that “we are all capable of misjudgements,” he promised that the museum is now fully committed to openness.

Greek tragedy

William St Clair, a former Treasury official and now a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, kicked off the debate. Giving evidence he had just published in a lengthy article (with fifty-five appended source documents) in the latest issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property, he described the damage which had been wrought by unskilled BM labourers, using, “hammers, chisels, copper rods, scrapers, wire brushes... The workmen were also found to be using carborundum, an artificial abrasive, at that time next to diamond the hardest substance known,” he commented, dramatically producing a piece from his pocket. Mr St Clair spoke in measured tones, but with considerable passion, and as the colloquium proceeded the tensions between him and BM staff became increasingly apparent. Yet without his persistent digging, the scandal would almost certainly have continued to be covered up.

Assistant Keeper and Parthenon specialist Ian Jenkins responded by criticising his museum’s cleaning of the marbles in the 1930s and the subsequent cover-up, although he concluded that the damage was not nearly as serious as critics are claiming. The main part of his speech was devoted to a detailed analysis of the extent of the physical damage to the individual marbles.

Dr Jenkins concluded on a controversial note, accusing the Greek authorities of neglect. “The tragedy of my generation has been to witness the progressive deterioration of the sculptures that have been left until recently on buildings in Athens, while some are still exposed. The continued deterioration of the west frieze still on the building until 1993, and the spoiling of all the Acropolis sculptures exposed to acid rain until the recent removal of some, but not all, to the shelter of the Acropolis Museum, is the greatest of all tragedies... South metope 1 and north metope 32, two of the finest that ever there were, still rot on the Parthenon as I speak.”

Sandwiches and sculptures

The morning session was followed by an invitation to a sandwich buffet with the marbles. This came only three weeks after The Guardian had run a front-page story (with a mixture of fact and fiction) alleging that fundraising dinners had been held in fancy dress in the Duveen Gallery. Greek chargé d’affaires Constantinos Bitsios made an informal complaint and studiously avoided the sandwich trays.

During the lunch break participants were also invited to touch the sculptures, in order to make a tactile analysis of the impact of the cleaning. Greek critics used this as further ammunition to accuse the BM of mistreating the marbles, but Dr Jenkins responded that a protective wax coating meant that no damage could be caused by gentle touching. The lunchtime touch-opportunity had been “an exercise in privileged access,” he said.

Following the lively lunch break, the Greek experts spoke, with reports by four experts from the Archaeological Service and the Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments (Dr Ismini Trianti, Professor Th. Skoulikidis, Dr Alexander Mantis and Evi Papakonstantinou). Their scholarly papers gave the preliminary results of an inspection of the marbles in the BM (28 October-3 November), and they concluded that the extent of the damage was even more serious than had originally been surmised. The Greeks confined their papers to the academic issues, studiously avoided the issue of restitution.


During the following afternoon Greek experts gave two further papers which discussed the remains of the “epidermis” or patina of the marbles (Amerimni Galanos/Yianna Doganis and Dr Calliope Kouzeli). Their presentations sparked off an important discussion on the nature of the surface. Relatively little agreement emerged among the assembled experts over the purpose of the patina and when it had been applied, or indeed if it was due to a chemical reaction or biological staining.

It was in the final half hour that the fireworks began. Press attaché Dr Nicos Papadakis stood up and complained that while his Greek colleagues had avoided making political points, some of the British speakers had not been as careful. He also spoke in anger about Auberon Waugh’s article in that morning’s Daily Telegraph, in which the “satirical” columnist had complained that prospective London mayor Ken Livingstone wanted to “rob” the BM of its proudest possession: “He will give the Elgin Marbles as a present to some short-legged, hairy-bottomed foreigners, who have nothing to do with the ancient Athenians but who happen to occupy the space, being descended from Turkish invaders over the centuries.” Nicholas Penny of the National Gallery, speaking from the platform, interjected that the whole conference deplored Mr Waugh’s “most repellent sentiment”, and the press attaché continued.

When Dr Papadakis had been speaking for a total of six minutes, Dr Jenkins complained that the press attaché had “hijacked” the meeting with an “unwarranted and unscheduled speech.” This intervention angered Mr St Clair, who protested that the colloquium had not been up to the standards of an academic conference, and it was yet another blow to the museum’s reputation.

By this time the audience was unclear as to whether there was a chairman—was it Dr Penny (who had presented the last paper and had remained on the platform) or Dr Jenkins (who was handing the microphone to questioners)?

A few minutes later Belgian conservator Dr R.H. Marijnissen was in full flow when Mr St Clair stood up again and interrupted, announcing that he had “just been asked not to attend the closing dinner.” The Belgian quickly came to his point, and Dr Jenkins’s boss, Keeper Dyfri Williams, then intervened to explain that “we were distressed that Dr Papadakis had stopped and we would like him to continue”. This intervention was just as well, since the snub could well have escalated into an international incident. The Greek press attaché politely declined the invitation. Dr Williams denied that he personally had “disinvited” Mr St Clair from the dinner, concluding with some much-needed conciliatory words: “We went into this conference with a great deal of risk. We have tried to be open. There has been some discussion which his strayed from the issue, but that is what always happens in academic conferences.”


The meeting ended without a discussion on the way forward: many experts believe that what is now needed is a detailed examination of the Parthenon marbles, stone by stone, conducted by archaeologists and conservators. This might best be done by an international team, with British, Greek and other specialists. Only then will it be possible to provide a definitive answer to Dr Jenkins’s question: was what was actually done to the marbles in the BM in the 1930s a scandal? Equally important, it might provide more evidence about the patina of the marbles, giving a better insight into the mysterious coatings of the ancient sculptures.

Following the colloquium, Greek chargé d’affaires Mr Bitsios immediately wrote to Dr Anderson, copying his letter to Culture Secretary Mr Smith. Although thanking the museum for organising the event, he complained that “the scientific nature of the exchanges was adulterated by extraneous emotive argumentation introduced by certain interested parties.” Mr Bitsios added: “The Greek side had understood that the colloquium would focus on the specific issue of cleaning the Parthenon Marbles and that all mention of restitution would be eschewed by both sides in the interests of objective analysis of the issues. I believe that we honoured this understanding... Notwithstanding the Greek side’s self-denying ordinance, we were very conscious of an alternative agenda among some of the participants, to wit, to raise willy-nilly, and then attempt to demolish, the Greek claim for restitution.” Dr Anderson immediately sent a reply to the Greek chargé, saying that although it had been a challenging two days, considerable progress was made in understanding the 1930s cleaning.

The legal status of the Marbles

Last month, the British government reiterated that it would not return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

There is a widespread misconception that it would merely require a change of heart on the Prime Minister’s part for the Marbles to be sent back to Greece. This is very far from being the case. According to the British Museum’s legal department, the situation is as follows:

When agents of Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to Constantinople, began to remove sculptures and other relics from the Parthenon in 1801, they did so with the consent of the Ottoman rulers of Greece, who considered themselves for a time indebted to the British for the expulsion of French armies from their dominions in Egypt and Syria following Lord Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile.

Lord Elgin shipped his collection of marbles back to England. In 1816, Parliament passed an Act in which it agreed to buy the marbles from him for the sum of £35,000 on condition that the whole collection should be kept together in the British Museum.

Having acquired them from Lord Elgin, the government presented the marbles to the Trustees of the British Museum who hold them to this day as part of the collections of the museum.

The collections of the British Museum are held on trust, subject to the powers and responsibilities imposed on the Trustees by Parliament. The present Trustees are governed by the British Museum Act 1963 (as amended) which imposes upon them a duty to keep the collections available for inspection by the public in the museum itself. Although in law the Trustees are the owners of the museum’s collections, they have very limited powers to dispose of objects within them. For example, they may only sell, exchange or give away an object if it is duplicated in the collections or is unfit to be retained within them (having regard to the interests of students). Where, as in the case of the Parthenon Sculptures, the Museum is absolutely satisfied it has legal title to an object, it would be unlawful for the Trustees to agree the restitution of that object to a country claiming cultural rights in it. Only Parliament, enacting primary legislation, could decide that an object within the museum’s collections should be returned to a country of origin.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Full, free—and almost completely civil'