Archive
Parthenon

William St Clair makes a rebuttal to the British Museum's defence of its competence to curate Parthenon Marbles

St Clair demands greater candour in the fallout of Lord Elgin and the Marble's third edition, in which it was asserted that over-cleaning had irreparably damaged the marbles

Since the reports of my book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, in the June issue (No.83, p.29) include inaccuracies, your readers may welcome clarification.

On the damage done to the Parthenon sculptures in 1937 and 1938, the official documents confirm that the official British Museum curators simply lost all control. For at least a year and a half, when the sculptures were not on public view, Lord Duveen’s agents ordered the museum workmen to scrape and scrub the surfaces with metal tools and carborundrum in an effort to make them appear more white. At the time the museum’s official policy, as set out in their printed books, was to permit only dusting with feathers and an annual wash with distilled water under the direct personal superintendence of a member of the curatorial staff. The suggestion in the piece by Ian Jenkins, a member of the present British Museum staff, that what was done represented some kind of acceptable practice at the time does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

The claim that the episode has “always been in the public domain”, is a quibble. The fact that some “unauthorised cleaning” of the Elgin marbles had taken place caused a brief flurry in the summer of 1939 in the busy days just before the outbreak of World War II—is mentioned in earlier editions of my book. In recent decades, more facts about what went wrong have gradually emerged, mainly from memoirs of those in the know, although with nothing from official sources. Now that we can read the report of the official inquiry, hitherto unlawfully suppressed, what cries out for explanation is the huge divergency between what has been officially admitted and what is now known to have actually happened. To take just one example, a Ministerial statement to Parliament, made on the advice of the Trustees of the museum on 26 May 1939 declared: “If any damage has been done, it is completely imperceptible to ordinary people like ourselves, and I very much doubt whether it is very obvious to experts.”

At that time the Trustees had in their hands the report of their own internal secret inquiry which declared: “The effect of the method employed in cleaning the sculptures has been to remove the surface of the marble and to impart to it a smooth and white appearance. Mr Pryce [Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities] described the Selene’s horse’s head as having been ‘skinned’. The surface of the sculptures, showing the evidences of 2,000 years of exposure to the climate of Greece, was a document of the utmost importance. There being no possible doubt about the history of the Parthenon sculptures, they came to the museum as authentic masterpieces of Greek work of the fifth century BC and for the purposes of study and comparison they are of inestimable value. The damage which has been caused is obvious and cannot be exaggerated.”

The official documents describe the decision to say as little as possible to the government and to Parliament, note the measures to prevent the public from seeing the effects of the scraping, and set out in detail the subsequent, long sustained, unlawful efforts to deny access to the full facts and to the relevant records. The tragedy—the present director’s recent description—has never been mentioned, even in the most oblique terms, in any of the official British Museum publications where you would expect to find it. Most people have understandably believed that the sculptures are in much the same condition as they were when they were first entrusted to the museum’s care. Ministers of successive governments too have accepted the advice, sent to them in the name of the Trustees, that the sculptures have been well looked after.

As regards the extent of the damage, the museum staff now volunteer a figure of “less than 10%”, as if that were not bad enough, but the evidence suggests something worse. On about 80% of the sculptures, as any visitor can at once see, there is now no trace whatsoever of any historic patina. How much patina was lost awaits a fuller inquiry, but the official documents, the reports of eye witnesses, the pictorial and photographic record, and the visible evidence of the extent of the scraping on the sculptures as they now stand, suggests that as much remained on the 80% as it still does on the other 20%. The appearance of some pieces whose historic surfaces were almost entirely intact until 1937 was radically transformed.

Damage has also occurred at other times. Serious losses from the frieze, for example, seem to have occurred when the sculptures were moulded, and there also appears to have been scraping in this century on the orders of the curators, as we know happened with other marble statues in the museum. There are also persisting reports of damage caused by coating with harmful substances in more recent times. But the most pervasive damage occurred when the sculptures fell under the ignorant control of Duveen’s agents. Since the documents show that they had at least three, and perhaps as many as seven, workmen scraping and rescraping the surviving non-white parts of the sculptures over many months, the estimated damage is in line with what one would expect.

Apart from my book, there is no account of what has actually happened to the Parthenon sculptures while they have been held in trusteeship in the British Museum. The latest official catalogue of the Parthenon sculptures is dated 1892, and many of the photographs reproduced in recent British Museum publications, or supplied to authors elsewhere, were taken before the Duveen damage. Besides what was scraped off, coloured coatings were put onto the exposed raw marble. The aesthetic effect of the sculptures was drastically changed; archaeological features such as artists’ tool marks have gone; scholars who understandably believed that they were dealing with original surfaces have been misled; and potential research opportunities for the study of Greek art, for example residual traces of paint and of metal attachments, have been destroyed forever. The marbles we see in Bloomsbury today are different from those which the artists and poets of Elgin’s time saw and admired at the time when they were first put into trust.

I do not wish to cast doubt on the museum’s current competence to curate the sculptures, as Ian Jenkins mistakenly says is my intention. I do criticise the current display, especially the coloured spotlights which prevent anyone from ever seeing the sculptures in natural light. And I wonder if other readers were also surprised to read that the British Museum staff still applies coloured tints to the marble antiquities in its care? No professional archaeologist I have spoken to regards the deliberate tinting of antiquities to deceive the eye as an acceptable practice. Why are members of the public not permitted to look and see for themselves? Who wants ancient sculptures turned into Caravaggios?

The conference to consider the damage which was announced by the Secretary of State, Chris Smith, in Parliament on 17 June, could, if the terms of reference, chairmanship, and membership, are right, enable the British Government and the present Trustees (who have so far remained silent) to bring the whole shameful Duveen business to a belated close. But they will only succeed in doing so if the result is the speedy publication of a full, honest, and reliable historical and scientific account of how the British Museum has exercised its trusteeship.

Ian Jenkins is also mistaken in suggesting that in my book I have argued in favour of returning the marbles to Greece. My book aims to present an accurate, dispassionate historical account, and to analyse the changing arguments which have surrounded the Parthenon sculptures. Now that the claim that the British Museum has exercised a careful stewardship turns out to have been a cynical sham, the nature of the debate about return is likely to change, but I do not offer an opinion of my own on that question.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Greater candour desirable'