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How the British Museum's maintenance procedures for the Parthenon marbles have changed

After the sculptures' surfaces were damaged in the 1930s due to improper care, the museum has cleaned up its act

The controversy surrounding the 1937-38 cleaning of the Parthenon Marbles has prompted screaming headlines in the British and Greek press and fierce accusations of incompetence. But whatever the damage caused by that isolated incident sixty years ago, the care taken now of the Marbles conforms to the highest level of conservation standards.

o Since 1970 the Marbles have been coated with water soluble polyethelene glycol, a layer of wax which protects the surface of the sculptures from the atmosphere and prevents the build-up of dust and grime. The application of this solution is entirely reversible. It can be removed with the simple application of distilled water.

Allegations that this layer of wax was applied as a “cover-up” measure by museum conservators in an effort to hide the damage caused by workmen in the 1930s rest on a misunderstanding of the effect it has on the appearance of the Marbles. Critics have argued that the wax is used to conceal areas where the sculptures were rubbed by Lord Duveen’s agents.

But, according to Ian Jenkins, a senior curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, the polyethelene glycol actually “obscures the sharpness of the details on the sculptures by closing the pores of the marble, making them appear smoother than they actually are.” In other words, the wax accentuates the “rubbed” effect rather than concealing it.

o As part of the refurbishment of the Duveen Galleries in 1960-61, an electrostatic precipitator was installed in the plenum ventilating system (an air conditioning system in which the air propelled into a building is maintained at a higher pressure than the atmosphere). Before pumping fresh air into the galleries from outside, this system removes particulate matter such as dust, down to 0.5 microns in size, and sulphur dioxide, a gas discharged into the atmosphere as waste from industrial processes.

o To make the installation of the air filters effective, self-closing armour-plate glass doors were also installed in the gallery in 1960-61. These enable a slight air pressure to be maintained constantly in the Duveen Galleries to prevent polluted air entering from outside.

o In response to growing numbers of visitors to the museum (currently 6 million per year) barriers were installed about two feet from the wall on which the sculptures are displayed in 1985.

o The marbles are dusted once a week with feather dusters.

o No smoking is permitted in any part of the museum. According to a spokesman for the museum, reports in the British press that “the odd cigar” may have been smoked in the Duveen Gallery which houses the marbles during private fund-raising events, are “pure inventions”.

o No other interventions on the sculptures take place and no further cleaning is anticipated.

Why was the damage not noticed by experts?

During the past sixty years innumerable scholars have been to the British Museum to research the Parthenon sculptures. Indeed, the Greek experts who presented papers at last month’s conference must have frequently examined the marbles on earlier occasions. It is true that BM curators had not mentioned the 1930s cleaning in their numerous publications and that the relevant documentation was inacessible (and this raises disturbing questions), but the visual evidence alone should have been telling.

But, if the damage was really so extensive, it is astonishing that it went unnoticed by generations of scholars. What, then, is the explanation? Perhaps the 1930s intervention was minimal and therefore difficult to detect—if so, the experts who now see serious damage are guilty of exaggeration. If the intervention was significant, and no specialist noticed it, then this represents a fundamental failure of scholarship.

And if the damage was noted, and not referred to in scholarly publications, then this either suggests that the loss of the marbles’s surface was considered unimportant or it raises questions about academic honesty.

What harm was actually done? Three points of view

Conclusions

William St Clair: Apart from the minority of pieces which were not cleaned, or were only partially cleaned, the Elgin Marbles are now a dull white or grey. Their surfaces are now different from the surfaces of the sculptures which remained in Athens which still show the scaly surfaces, the variegated brown patinas, and the occasional shining surface textures which were formerly present on the sculptures now in London. The damage is both archaeological and aesthetic.

Greek View: The preliminary results and conclusions of this investigation are revealing and show that the problem is even more serious than had originally been surmised...

The consequences of this intervention...are incalculable and irreversible...The excessive friction and scraping applied to the sculptures caused in certain cases a partial alteration and even distortion to their form.

Ian Jenkins: Many people have expressed to me the sentiment that with their disfiguring coatings removed the sculptures look better than ever... [But should they have been cleaned?] My short answer to that question is no... We archaeologists are greedy for information. We want it all there, with nothing taken away, no matter how disfiguring.

The extent of the cleaning

William St Clair: As far as can be judged from comparing the present state of the sculptures with what is thought to have been their prior condition as recorded by witnesses and as shown in old photographs, all the metopes, 80 or 90% of the frieze, and about half the pedimental sculptures of the Parthenon were damaged by overcleaning.

Greek View: All of the southern metopes, the greatest part of the surface of the frieze and at least four figures in the tympanum of the eastern pediment went through the ordeal of “cleaning” .

Ian Jenkins: Taking together Helios, the backs of the heads of his horses, part of figure G and the back of the head of the Horse of Selene we arrive at a figure of some 10 % of the total east pediment [affected by the cleaning]. Of the frieze, the east was not touched at all and I am going to exclude the cavalcade of the north, because it is so little affected and it would be misleading to include it. The total area then, covering the two blocks of the west frieze, the chariot sequence of the north frieze and most of the south amounts to about 40%. The metopes are more affected, but not all to the same degree and more on the backgrounds than on the figures and I would estimate the figure at around 60%... When the sculptures entered the museum less than 20% of their overall surface retained its coating, of which in the 1930s about half was removed.

Pediment

William St Clair: The damage to the two pieces of the Helios group is among the fully documented and, as they exist today, the most obvious... On the figure of the god Helios... you can see deep modern scratch marks which look to me like the effect of wire brushes. On the other piece of the Helios group, which represents Helios’s horse, the inner side of the carved surface, for about half a metre square, is now also mostly a dull uniform white. It is now very different from how it appeared in earlier photographs which show a rich dark surface... The head of the horse of Selene was in 1938 described as having been “skinned”... As the piece now exists, it is noticeably whiter than the adjoining pedimental pieces and shows scarcely any trace of brown surface.

Greek View: At least four figures in the tympanum of the eastern pediment...went through the ordeal of “cleaning”...The tympanum sculptures that were submitted to cleaning have proven especially useful in understanding the process (Greek report). [There is damage] to the head of Selene’s horse, the Helios group and figure G from the middle of her thigh down (Galanos/Doganis paper).

Ian Jenkins: Only east pediment pieces were rubbed and of these only the Helois, the back of his two horses’s heads, the drapery of Iris and the back of the head of the horse of Selene.

Metopes

William St Clair: The darker patinated background appears to have been scraped off the majority of pieces...The formerly rough surface of some of the centaurs’s sides seem in some cases to have been smoothed.

Greek View: All the southern metopes...went through the ordeal of “cleaning”... The project of normalising the surfaces on the background of the high-reliefs and on the figures themselves increased the damage to the surfaces. It led to a considerable— and in certain cases excessive—loss of material. Some of the metopes represent glaring examples of this intervention (Greek report). Scratch marks in sheltered areas attest to the use of hard sharp tools, rubbed surfaces attest to the use of an abrasive which got rid of the above mentioned marks. Alteration here has to do with removing more layers of crystals from already weathered marble (Galanos/Doganis paper).

Ian Jenkins: On metope XXIX [among others] the weathered surface is rubbed, mostly on the background, but it is also carried over onto the figure of the girl. The weathering of the drapery of the girl appears smooth and perhaps blunted.

Frieze

William St Clair: The slab from the west frieze [II] was always regarded as artistically among the best... After Duveen we see further damage. The second crater [caused by earlier flaking] has now joined with the third, and another piece of marble has been splintered off from the side of the horse... The attempts to whiten the surface have produced the variegated effect we would expect as the workmen rubbed into the surface as they tried, unsuccessfully, to achieve a more uniform white.

Greek View: The greatest part of the surface of the frieze... went through the ordeal of “cleaning” (Greek report). The slabs of the north frieze were for the most part abraded. The slabs of the south frieze have been extensively tampered with, both in terms of removing the epidermis and abrasion of the weathered surface. The two slabs of the west frieze have both been abraded and feature loss of the epidermis (Galanos/Doganis paper).

Ian Jenkins: The cavalcade of the north frieze is affected only in very particular places. West frieze II has a complex history, but it is not the story Mr St Clair has us believe. In his new article he published photographs which he claims shows damage done to the sculpture during cleaning. In fact, these marks.. are in the photographic negative [not the sculpture]... West frieze I retained its dark coating up until the 1930s... In the 1930s this coating was largely removed, leaving traces on the background and on the figure.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How the British Museum looks after its Marbles'