How British Museum maintenance issues kept the Parthenon marbles out of sight for a full year

The British Museum will reopen its Greek galleries to the public on December 13 after a full year of closure due to the pandemic and problems with collapsing infrastructure. The poor condition of the galleries, which house the famous marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon, fueled Greek demands for their return.

In accordance with the UK lockdown, the museum closed on December 16, 2020 and reopened on May 17, but the Greek galleries remained closed to allow for delayed routine surveillance work. Then, after heavy rains in July, a roof leak in Gallery 17 – which contains the Nereid monument – forced the museum to keep all of its Greek galleries closed pending roof repairs due to social distancing and social distancing rules. the introduction of a new one-way visitor route through the museum. For example, Gallery 17 is the only access point to the Parthenon sculptures in Gallery 18.

The poor condition of the Greek halls and the neighboring Assyrian galleries has been repeatedly observed. In 2018, Greek television broadcast images of water dripping into the Parthenon Marble Gallery, with Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni responding that it “reinforces Greece’s legitimate demand for the permanent return of sculptures in Athens ”. The leak was caused by a 40-year-old ceiling glass cracking, a museum spokesperson said. “Such cracks are due to general wear and tear, which is expected over time in an old and historic building. This was resolved in 2018 and the glass was replaced with new fixings. None of the sculptures were damaged, according to the museum.

In 2018, a 40-year-old ceiling glass cracked in Gallery 18, which houses the Parthenon marbles The arts journal

A leak in Gallery 10, which shows an Assyrian frieze of a lion hunt, in January 2020 The arts journal

During this time, The arts journal repeatedly recorded leaks in the Assyrian galleries. More recently, on October 18, an ancient Assyrian frieze in Gallery 7 was seen covered in plastic. The spokesperson said: “There was a faulty actuator on the window, which was replaced. The precipitation on this roof has been redirected to reduce the volumes of water encountered during heavy precipitation. The problems have been fixed but the plastic remains in place as a precaution. In Gallery 10 next door, the floor tiles appear stained and cracked.

An ancient Assyrian frieze exhibited in gallery 7 is now wrapped in plastic as a “precaution”. Photograph taken on October 18, 2021 The arts journal

Stained and cracked floor tiles in gallery 10. Photograph taken October 18, 2021 The arts journal

In January 2020, the exhibition of the treasures of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Gallery 7 was closed for maintenance The arts journal

A major challenge is that “there is no such thing as a holistic global design” for the Greek and Assyrian galleries, explains Jonathan Williams, deputy director of the museum. “You have a series of complex parts added at different times and all requiring different levels and types of maintenance due to the passage of time and the effects of weather,” he says.

Grants for essential repairs

In March 2020, the National Audit Office published a report on the maintenance needs of the 15 museums sponsored by the UK Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), including the British Museum. This noted that aid grants for all museums decreased by 20% after adjusting for inflation between 2010/11 (£ 361m) and 2018/19 (£ 333m).

While museums have stepped up fundraising from corporate and private sponsors, the report notes that these donors “often have conditions attached. [to their gifts]… They generally wish to support visible projects such as new galleries. Museums therefore depend on [DCMS funding for] non-public operations, such as maintenance of the estate and maintenance of basic infrastructure such as roofs.

According to the report, the British Museum requested £ 48.4million for maintenance over the five years 2016/17 to 2020/21 and received £ 21.3million. In April 2019, DCMS allocated the museum an additional £ 12million from a new maintenance fund set up to support urgent repairs. In March 2020, the government’s National Museum Maintenance Fund granted him an additional £ 5million. In July he received £ 9.8million for essential maintenance delayed by the pandemic – of which £ 2.7million is earmarked for fabric and gallery roofs – from the public bodies infrastructure fund of £ 60million from DCMS. The museum is now waiting to see how much it will get from the Treasury’s £ 300million investment over three years in heritage maintenance for independent cultural organizations, announced as part of the fall 2021 budget in October.

Museum master plan

Under the direction of its director Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum is developing a comprehensive master plan that will revamp all of its galleries and re-display all of its collections, but it will take decades to raise funds and implement the project. The first step is a £ 64million storage and research facility in Berkshire in partnership with the University of Reading, which is expected to open in 2024.

It will therefore be several years before the museum can devote itself to the modernization of the Greek and Assyrian galleries. Until then, he will perform “spot repairs” as needed. “There will be regular interventions to preserve the building,” said the spokesperson, adding that it is “not a long-term solution”. The museum is “in discussions with DCMS on the need for a much larger capital investment in the building over the next few years”.

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