In July, the United Kingdom lifted the bulk of its pandemic-related social distancing measures. The lifting of mandates, dubbed ‘Freedom Day,’ saw the reopening of cultural venues, and of course pubs, across the country. The British Museum in London is one such institution, and, after seven months of dormancy, is now welcoming visitors once more through its grand porticoed entrances. However, in an unfortunate turn of events, seven of the museum’s galleries containing Greek art will remain closed until a leaky roof is repaired.
As reported by The Art Newspaper, the leaks date back to at least 2018 and, more recently, were caused by a heavy rainfall on July 25th that flooded central London. The British Museum, recognizing the poor condition of several wings and galleries of the museum, is currently developing a master plan to renovate the galleries and establish a new building maintenance and conservation program.
The galleries affected by the leaking host the British Museum’s Greek and Assyrian collections and most notably the Parthenon Marbles. The Classical Greek marble sculptures were formerly located at the Parthenon atop the Athenian Acropolis. In the 18th century, the Earl of Elgin was named ambassador (or Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty) to the Ottoman Empire, who at that point still ruled over Greece. Elgin, without the approval of the British government, took it upon himself to remove material from the site for export to the United Kingdom, where he hoped to decorate his estate with the crown jewels of Athenian democracy. A bankruptcy proceeding set him back and the items were ultimately sold to the British Museum.
The seizure of the Parthenon Marbles is a point of contention between the United Kingdom and Greece, with the former often arguing that their holding at the British Museum ensures the long-term conservation of the sculptures. To that point, the Greeks would counter that the Acropolis Museum constructed in 2009 is just as capable of hosting the collection. To that effect, Lina Mendoni, Greece’s Minister of Cultures and Sports, noted in pointed terms in 2019 that the apparent abandonment of curatorial standards within the galleries reinforces Greece’s call for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles. That position is, of course, complicated by the number of institutions that possess displaced art from the Parthenon sourced separately from Elgin’s intervention, as well as providing a further stamp of legitimacy for the repatriation of art seized during the Age of Imperialism.
A date for the galleries’ reopening is yet to be announced.