For anyone interested in the politics of European cultural heritage, the case study of the Parthenon Marbles (also glibly referred to as the “Elgin Marbles”) is a familiar one.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Thomas Bruce, then-Earl of Elgin, hacked off about half of the sculptural work on the frieze of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. He also removed sculptures from the Propylaea and Erectheum, as well as several smaller marble statues he found lying around the Acropolis. Although there was a considerable local protest against his actions, he claimed to have received a permit from the occupying Ottoman Empire which permitted the removal, though no corresponding document has yet been found in the Ottoman Archives to legitimate Elgin's claims

Despite a lack of evidence, the British Museum today clings to the permit’s existence as a large factor in its decision to retain the sculptures in the face of widespread calls for their return to Greece. The trustees of the British Museum claim the marbles are “a part of the world's shared heritage and transcend political boundaries” and benefit from more visitors in London than they would have at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

In the two centuries since the marbles’ migration to London, there have been debates over whether Elgin’s actions were of greater harm or benefit to the sculptures. Several scholars have argued that the undisciplined removal of the frieze statues constituted heavy-handed vandalism and that the removal of the sculptures without official permission constituted looting. Others, however, argue that the British Museum’s acquisition of the pieces protected them from future damage in the Greek capital and has allowed visitors to appreciate them in the context of the British Museum’s encyclopedic collections.

Regardless of your position on the question of restitution (the return of the sculptures to Greece), the saga of the Parthenon Marbles offers a timeline of blunders in stone conservation – a guide on “what not to do”, one might say – in a formative period for scientific museum practices.

The nineteenth century marked an explosion in European expeditions to excavate, export, and collect antiquities from the countries now known as Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, among many others. As an emerging practice with a knowledge base that varied country-to-country and institution-to-institution, archaeological activity in the nineteenth century lacked standardized techniques and documentation methods. It is for this reason that many today oscillate between condemnation and sympathy for nineteenth-century archaeologists and their haphazard, often destructive methods.

Archaeologists often launched into excavations knowing roughly what they wanted to find, and they were less than careful with any material that was secondary to their treasure-seeking aims. Conservation and preservation of material were therefore dependent on how important the archaeologist deemed the treasures they found.

To illustrate this, we may look to Elgin’s efforts to ship the sculptures (and other miscellaneous finds) to London aboard the HMS Mentor, which regrettably sank off the coast of Greece in late 1802 with 17 crates of antiquities and the Parthenon Marbles aboard. Elgin led several rescue campaigns in the following years, recovering the marbles but abandoning much of the remaining material, which was more difficult (and less rewarding) to retrieve. This material is still being recovered today by archaeologists working with the Greek Ministry of Culture.

Following their arrival in London and for nearly a century afterward, the Parthenon Marbles were subjected to aggressive cleaning techniques by British Museum staff who further damaged the already weathered surfaces of the pieces. Antonio Canova, considered to be one of the best sculptural restorers of the early nineteenth century, refused outright to work on the marbles in their heavily degraded condition.

Scientist Michael Faraday, in a letter to the commissioner for the National Gallery, wrote:

The application of water, applied by a sponge or soft cloth, removed the coarsest dirt. The use of fine, gritty powder, with the water and rubbing, though it more quickly removed the upper dirt, left much embedded in the cellular surface of the marble. I then applied alkalies, both carbonated and caustic; these quickened the loosening of the surface dirt ... but they fell far short of restoring the marble surface to its proper hue and state of cleanliness. I finally used dilute nitric acid, and even this failed. ... The examination has made me despair of the possibility of presenting the marbles in the British Museum in that state of purity and whiteness which they originally possessed.

The primary focus of conservation at this time was to restore what was believed to be the original “purity and whiteness” of the marble, in line with European ideals of aesthetic Greek classicism. However, the notion of Athens as a classical city of gleaming white marble is a modern creation. In fact, the Parthenon Marbles were painted with vibrant reds, greens, and blues – a fact which we owe to conservation performed on the remaining marbles in recent years.

Following the failed attempts at conservation in the mid-1800s, the British Museum made another “heavy-handed” attempt in 1937-1938 to remove the marbles’ honey-coloured patina. The conservators used physical and abrasive cleaning tools such as scrapers, stone, steel wool, and chisels to grind as much as .25cm off the surface of the sculptures.

At the end of the twentieth century, the deputy keeper of Greek and Roman sculpture at the British Museum, Ian Jenkins, commented that “the British Museum is not infallible, it is not the Pope. Its history has been a series of good intentions marred by the occasional cock-up, and the 1930s cleaning was such a cock-up”. Jenkins ignored the earlier failed attempts by the Museum to clean the statues and argued instead that much of this damage was inflicted by weathering on the Acropolis and an atmosphere of indifference from the bureaucrats of then-Ottoman Greece.

Conservation of stone artifacts in the twentieth century also took on a political role that has since been embodied in the battle between Greece and the United Kingdom over the sculptures. Cultural objects are often leveraged to support a national or cultural identity as much as they are appreciated for their historic materiality. The large-scale acquisitions of the British Museum in a period of global imperial conquest reflected the long arm of the empire on which the sun never set. Through its encyclopedic collections, the museum claims a historical connection with all the cultures from which flashy artifacts have been sourced. In the case of the Parthenon Marbles, the acquisition of classical Greek sculpture also facilitated British claims to be the heirs of classical Greek cultural achievement.

In sum, the marbles were divorced quite violently from their architectural setting, sunk in the Mediterranean, steeped in the pollution of industrial London, scrubbed with steel wool, appropriated for the construction of British national identity, and now sit lazily at eye-level in a stark white gallery with minimal signage.

I offer this cursory history of the British Museum’s conservation efforts to justify my request: that the British Museum assumes a more repentant position that goes beyond recognizing failed conservation as a mere “cock-up”.

While the conservation attempts occurred at a time when scientific archaeology and conservation were in their formative years, a more apologetic approach from the British Museum might facilitate more collaborative research between Greek and British scholars and improve future conservation efforts. Thinking long-term, this position may even manifest in the sculptures’ eventual return to Athens.


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