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Jousting over the Parthenon Marbles Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

A conference this past winter focusing on the condition of the Elgin Marbles following their 1937-1938 cleaning by the British Museum produced little consensus. The two-day colloquium was ordered by British culture secretary Chris Smith following 1998 disclosures by William St. Clair, a former treasury official and now a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, that the British Museum concealed damage to the sculptures following an unauthorized cleaning with copper chisels and carborundum. Hosted by the British Museum, the conference featured reports by St. Clair, a team of Greek specialists who have studied the marbles, and Ian Jenkins, the museum's assistant keeper and Parthenon specialist.

The specialists largely disagreed over the extent of damage to the sculptures, with St. Clair and the Greeks claiming that important surface layers had been scraped off. The Greek report characterized the damage as being "even more serious than had originally been surmised," that "the consequences of this intervention...are incalculable and irreversible..." and that "the excessive friction and scraping applied to the sculptures caused in certain cases a partial alteration and even distortion to their form." Jenkins conceded that his museum was wrong to clean the marbles and then conceal its actions, but downplayed the extent of the damage: "Many people have expressed to me the sentiment that with their disfiguring coatings removed the sculptures look better than ever."

There was also disagreement over the extent of the cleaning, with St. Clair and the Greeks claiming that more of the marbles had been scrubbed than Jenkins was willing to admit. Taking the offensive, Jenkins made one of the more inflammatory remarks of the meeting, criticizing Greek stewardship of the sculptures that remain on the Parthenon: "The continued deterioration of the west frieze still on the building until 1993, and the spoiling of all the Acropolis sculptures exposed to acid rain until the recent removal of some, but not all, to the shelter of the Acropolis Museum, is the greatest of all tragedies.... South metope 1 and north metope 32, two of the finest that ever there were, still rot on the Parthenon as I speak." The conference was haunted by the debate (largely not discussed by participants) over restitution of the marbles to Greece.

Publicly both British and Greek authorities appear as intransigent as ever on the repatriation issue. Sir Hugh Leggett, Britain's former Museums and Galleries Commissioner, recently expressed irritation over continuing Greek efforts to secure return of the marbles, noting that "the cream of British heritage" had been exported to America. "We're not screaming and crying over spilt milk.... For the Greeks to start is silly. They must shut up." Privately, however, Greek and British authorities have entertained settlement proposals. The British Museum recently declassified documents revealing that in 1994 the Greeks had asked for the return of pediment sculptures in exchange for dropping their claim for the entire collection. British Museum trustees discussed the proposal at July 23 meeting, deciding "there was nothing in the offer to cause them to change their existing position."

Meanwhile, the notion that Ottoman authorities granted Elgin legal title to the Parthenon sculptures, which has been the main British argument for keeping them, was recently challenged in a detailed study by Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law professor David Rudenstine in the International Journal of Cultural Property. Rudenstine concludes that the premise that Elgin obtained legal title to the marbles, which he then transferred to the British government, "is certainly not established and may well be false." Both Prince Charles and President Clifton have come out in favor of returning the sculptures to Greece, as has Turkish Foreign Minister Dismal Em. Ankara is also seeking the return of antiquities from classical sites in Turkey now in the British Museum's collection.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America