How the Townley Venus's thumb was knocked off at the British Museum

One of institution's most important sculptures, now restored, was damaged by external catering team setting up for corporate event

The Townley Venus, one of the British Museum’s most important Roman sculptures, was damaged when its thumb was knocked off as catering staff were setting up for an evening event last December. Although the British Museum’s trustees were informed about the damage, the news was not released to the press or put into the public domain.

The Townley Venus is a Roman copy of a fourth-century BC Greek sculpture of the half-draped, goddess of love. The London museum’s marble copy, just over two metres tall, dates from the first or second centuries AD. Found in Rome in 1775, it was bought by the distinguished English collector Charles Townley. In 1805 his descendants sold the Venus to the British Museum, where it is now prominently displayed.

Work on the Townley Venus was "straightforward". (Image: © Trustees of the British Museum)

Shortly before 6pm on 10 December 2015, external catering staff were setting up for a corporate event in the room, which has Greek and Roman sculpture. The company is not being identified and the museum uses nine outside caterers. A caterer was working too close to the Venus, which is on a low pedestal, and knocked the figure. The thumb on the right hand broke off and fell to the floor. (A finger on the right hand was broken off before the Venus came to the British Museum.)

A spokeswoman for the museum tells The Art Newspaper that the break was clean and the conservation work was “straightforward”. The thumb was fixed back with an adhesive and the work was done in situ while the museum was closed.

The spokeswoman says that the museum conducted an investigation after the incident: “We have taken steps to ensure it does not happen again. Any staff who are involved in managing or invigilating events have gone through retraining on the protection of objects before and during events.” In 2012 a visitor knocked off part of the hand of the Townley Venus. This broke along an earlier break and was restored.

The Venus is depicted in Zoffany’s 1782 painting of Townley’s antiquities collection, a picture now at the museum and gallery in Burnley.