The British Museum is due to reopen its Greek galleries to the public on December 13 after a full year of closure due to the pandemic and problems associated with crumbling infrastructure. The poor condition of the galleries, which house the famous marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon, has fueled the Greek demands for restitution.
In line with the UK lockdown, the museum closed on 16 December 2020 and reopened on 17 May, but the Greek galleries remained closed to allow for delayed routine monitoring work. Then, after heavy rains in July, a roof leak in Gallery 17 – which contains the Nereid Monument – forced the museum to keep all its Greek galleries closed pending roof repairs due to social distance rules and the introduction of a new one-way guest 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 rooms and the adjacent Assyrian galleries has been noticed many times. In 2018, Greek television broadcast images of water dripping into the Parthenon Marbles Gallery, with Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni responding that it “reinforces Greece’s legitimate demands for the sculptures’ permanent return to Athens”. The leak was due to a 40-year-old glass ceiling window cracking, says a spokesman for the museum. “Such cracks are generally due to wear and tear, which is expected over time in an old and historic building. This was corrected in 2018, and the glass was replaced with new fittings. ” None of the sculptures were damaged, the museum states.
In the meantime Kunstavisen has registered leaks in the Assyrian galleries several times. By October 18, an old Assyrian frieze in Gallery 7 was seen covered in plastic. The spokesman says: “There was a defective actuator on the window which has been replaced. Rain on this roof has been redirected to alleviate amounts of water experienced during heavy rainfall. The problems have been solved but the plastic remains in place as a safety measure . ” In gallery 10 next door, the floor tiles appear stained and cracked.
A major challenge is that “there is no overall comprehensive design” for the Greek and Assyrian galleries, says Jonathan Williams, the museum’s deputy director. “You’ve added a number of complex spaces at different times, all of which need different levels and forms of maintenance caused by the passage of time and the impact of the weather,” he says.
Subsidies for major repairs
In March 2020, the National Audit Office published a report on the maintenance needs of the 15 museums sponsored by the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), including the British Museum. This noted that subsidies to all museums fell by 20% when adjusted for inflation between 2010/11 (GBP 361 million) and 2018/19 (GBP 333 million).
While museums have increased fundraising from companies and private sponsors, the report notes that these donors “often have conditions attached [to their gifts]… they generally want to support visible projects such as new galleries. Museums are therefore dependent on [DCMS funding for] non-public operations such as property maintenance and core infrastructure maintenance such as roofing. “
According to the report, the British Museum requested £ 48.4 million for maintenance over the five years from 2016/17 to 2020/21 and received £ 21.3 million. In April 2019, the DCMS Museum allocated an additional £ 12 million from a new maintenance fund set up to support emergency repairs. In March 2020, the government’s national maintenance fund for museums gave it an additional 5 million. GBP. In July, it received £ 9.8 million for significant maintenance delayed by the pandemic – of which £ 2.7 million is earmarked for the gallery’s fabric and roofs – from DCMS’s £ 60 million Infrastructure Fund. The museum is now waiting to hear how much it will receive from the Treasury’s investment of £ 300 million over three years in property maintenance for arm-length cultural bodies, announced as part of the autumn 2021 budget in October.
The museum’s master plan
Under its director Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum is preparing a comprehensive master plan that will revise all of its galleries and re-exhibit all of its collections, but it will take decades to raise funds for and complete the project. The first phase is a storage and research facility worth £ 64 million. in Berkshire in partnership with the University of Reading to open in 2024.
So it will be several years before the museum is able to draw attention to the upgrade of the Greek and Assyrian galleries. Until then, it will perform “localized repairs” as needed. “There will be regular interventions to preserve the building,” the spokesman said, adding that this “is not a long-term solution”. The museum is “in discussion with DCMS about the need for far greater capital investment in the building over the coming years”.