How British Museum's maintenance woes have kept Parthenon Marbles off view for a full year

The poor condition of the London museum’s Greek and Assyrian galleries—with roofs in disrepair causing long closures—is adding to calls for the restitution of the contested works

A major challenge in maintaining the British Museum is that there is no uniform structure, with buildings of different designs having been added at various times. Photo: APS(UK)/Alamy.

A major challenge in maintaining the British Museum is that there is no uniform structure, with buildings of different designs having been added at various times. Photo: APS(UK)/Alamy.

The British Museum is to reopen its Greek galleries to the public on 13 December after a full year of closure due to the pandemic and problems linked to crumbling infrastructure. The shoddy state of the galleries, which house the celebrated marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon, has fuelled Greek demands for their restitution.

In compliance with the UK lockdown, the museum shut on 16 December 2020 and reopened on 17 May, but the Greek galleries remained closed to allow for delayed routine surveillance work. Then, after heavy rain in July, a roof leak in gallery 17—which contains the Nereid monument—forced the museum to keep all its Greek galleries closed pending roof repairs because of social distancing rules and the introduction of a new, one-way visitor route through the museum. For example, Gallery 17 is the only access point to the Parthenon sculptures in gallery 18.

The poor condition of the Greek rooms and neighbouring Assyrian galleries has been noted many times. In 2018, Greek television broadcast images of water dripping into the Parthenon Marbles gallery, with the Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, responding that it “reinforces Greece’s rightful demand for the sculptures’ permanent return to Athens”. The leak was caused by a 40-year-old glass ceiling pane cracking, a museum spokesperson says. “Such cracks are due to general wear and tear, which is expected over time in an old and historic building. This was addressed in 2018 and the glass was replaced with new fixings.” None of the sculptures were damaged, the museum says.

In 2018, a 40-year-old glass ceiling pane cracked in gallery 18, home to the Parthenon Marbles The Art Newspaper

A leak in gallery 10, which shows an Assyrian frieze of a lion hunt, in January 2020 The Art Newspaper

Meanwhile, The Art Newspaper has recorded leaks in the Assyrian galleries multiple times. Most recently, on 18 October, an ancient Assyrian frieze in gallery 7 was seen covered in plastic. The spokesperson says: “There was a faulty actuator on the window, which has been replaced. Rainfall on to this roof has been redirected to alleviate volumes of water experienced during heavy rainfall. The issues have been dealt with but the plastic is staying in place as a precaution.” In gallery 10 next door, the floor tiles appear stained and cracked.

An ancient Assyrian frieze on display in gallery 7 is now wrapped in plastic as a “precaution”. Photograph taken on 18 October 2021 The Art Newspaper

Stained and cracked floor tiles in gallery 10. Photograph taken on 18 October 2021 The Art Newspaper

In January 2020, the display of treasures from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in gallery 7 was closed for maintenance The Art Newspaper

A major challenge is that “there is no overall encompassing design” to the Greek and Assyrian galleries, says Jonathan Williams, the museum’s deputy director. “You have a series of complex rooms added at different times and all needing different levels and kinds of maintenance caused by the passage of time and the effects of the weather,” he says.

Grants for essential repairs

In March 2020, the National Audit Office published a report on the maintenance needs of the 15 museums sponsored by the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), including the British Museum. This noted that grant-in-aid subsidies for all the museums fell by 20% when adjusted for inflation between 2010/11 (£361m) and 2018/19 (£333m).

While the museums have ramped up fund-raising from corporate and private sponsors, the report notes that these donors “often have conditions attached [to their gifts]…they generally want to support visible projects such as new galleries. Museums are therefore reliant on [DCMS funding for] non-public-facing operations, such as estate maintenance and the upkeep of core infrastructure such as roofs.”

According to the report, the British Museum requested £48.4m for maintenance over the five years from 2016/17 to 2020/21 and received £21.3m. In April 2019, DCMS allocated the museum an additional £12m from a new maintenance fund set up to support urgent repairs. In March 2020, the government’s national museums maintenance fund gave it a further £5m. In July, it received £9.8m for essential maintenance delayed by the pandemic—£2.7m of which is earmarked for the fabric and roofs of galleries—from DCMS’s £60m Public Bodies Infrastructure Fund. The museum is now waiting to hear how much it will get from the Treasury’s £300m investment over three years in estate maintenance for arm’s-length cultural bodies, announced as part of the autumn 2021 budget in October.

Museum masterplan

Under its director Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum is drawing up a comprehensive masterplan which will overhaul all of its galleries and redisplay all of its collections, but it will take decades to raise funds for and implement the project. The first stage is a £64m storage and research facility in Berkshire in partnership with the University of Reading, due to open in 2024.

So, it will be several years before the museum is able to turn its attention to upgrading the Greek and Assyrian galleries. Until then, it will perform “localised repairs” as required. “There will be regular interventions to preserve the building,” says the spokesperson, adding that this is “not a long-term solution”. The museum is “in discussion with DCMS about the need for much more significant capital investment in the building over the coming years”.