Six of the British Museum’s Greek galleries, including the museum’s display of the Parthenon Marbles, have been closed for almost ten months, prompting concerns from Greek officials and campaigners that wet and damp could damage the ancient artworks.
The museum was forced to close on 30 December 2020 when a national Covid-19 lockdown was put in place. It reopened on 17 May 2021, but some of its Greek galleries remained closed due to ‘essential repairs.’
Parikiaki visited the museum last week and confirmed that a total of six galleries of Greek art have yet to reopen; Rooms 15, 16, 17 and 18 are closed due to “maintenance”; Rooms 19 and 20 are closed to “comply with social distancing measures.”
The Duveen Gallery (Room 18) which houses the Parthenon Sculptures, has been closed since December 2020. Its leaky roof has made news many times before.
In December 2018, the glass roof of Room 18 began leaking after heavy rainfall in London. Witnesses reported seeing water dripping just centimetres away from the west pediment figure of Iris. More recently, leaks were caused by a heavy rainfall on July 25th that flooded central London.
The Greek government as well as campaigners for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles have expressed concern about the poor state of the rooms.
On August 15, the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS), which represents 21 national committees around the world, wrote to the British Museum Chairman Sir Richard Lambert, its Director Dr. Hartwig Fischer and its Trustees.
It said that “the planned reopening of the Greek rooms, postponed ‘until further notice’, after months of lockdown, is a deep worry,” adding that the “possible humidity problem (creates) a dangerous condition for the sculptures.”
It also called on the Museum to “reconsider its viewpoint on the continued division of the Parthenon Sculptures”, noting that “there is a moral obligation to return and to reunify all the surviving Parthenon Sculptures in the Acropolis Museum with a direct visual contact to the Parthenon.”
“It is saddening that Room 18 has been closed ‘until further notice’,” IARPS President Dr Christiane Tytgat told Parikiaki, adding that “the inappropriate climate conditions in the room are upsetting.”
“I hope,” she said, “that we do not have to wait another 22 years before we can admire the Parthenon Sculptures on display in London again, as it happened before, when the Duveen Gallery was hit by a bomb in 1940 and reopened only in 1962! Even if the Sculptures were then stored in a safe place and undamaged.”
Almost two months later, the Museum has not responded to the letter, which Dr. Tytgat described as “sad.”
Dame Janet Suzman, Chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM), told Parikiaki: “I would be a happy person if Room 18 were permanently closed because those spectacular sculptures taken by the marauding Lord Elgin deserve to be reunited in the Acropolis Museum. No one can say for certain what remedial work is being done in the Greek galleries of the British Museum or for how long. The lack of climate controls in an old building are self-evident and has been questioned by BCRPM on other occasions: blow-heaters in winter, open exit doors in summer, leaking roof during the rainy season.”
“We urge the British Museum to stop repeating by rote the same mantra and to reunite those emblematic marble figures in the superlative Acropolis Museum, which has been built to the latest standards and allows visitors to view them in context with the Parthenon,” she added.
Professor Paul Cartledge, Vice-Chair of the BCRPM and Vice-President of the IARPS, told Parikiaki that he has found “the Trustees’ failure to respond at all to the letter deeply disappointing – not at all the way to begin dialogue on this pressing cultural issue in a way fitting of its importance. Dismissing this very specific request is tantamount to not understanding the importance of cultural diplomacy. Time for the British Museum and the UK to join the 21st century, although it would have been good and great if they were to lead the way.”

Closed ‘until further notice’

The website of the British Museum states that the Greek galleries are “closed until further notice”, due to “regular maintenance works.”
UNESCO recently expressed “concern that the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum is not currently open to the public due to essential repairs”, adding that it “looks forward to its reopening in due course.”
In his interview with Greek newspaper Ta Nea, in January 2019, the director of the Museum, Dr. Hartwig Fischer, claimed that there was “a tiny leak” (in Room 18’s roof) which was “fixed right away.”
Lina Mendoni, Greece’s Culture minister has said that the conditions for exhibiting the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum “are not only inappropriate, but also dangerous.”
A British Museum spokesperson told Parikiaki that “there has previously been some water ingress in some gallery spaces closure,” adding that “there is no confirmed date for their reopening, but we are working towards later this autumn.”
UK Government ‘disagrees’ with UNESCO’s decision, insists that the Parthenon Sculptures ‘were acquired legally’

The British government has said that it will not abide by a recent UNESCO decision on the Parthenon Marbles.
It also insisted that “the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally” and rejected UNESCO’s call to reconsider its position and to negotiate with Greece on the return of the 2,500-year-old cultural treasures.
Speaking to Parikiaki, a government spokesperson said that the UK government “disagrees” with the decision, adding that it intends to challenge it before UNESCO.
The response came after the UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property (ICPRCP) voted unanimously for the first time at its 22nd session to include the return of the Parthenon Marbles in its decision document, marking a major step forward since Greece first introduced the request to the meeting’s agenda in 1984.
ICPRCP’s decision says that Greece’s request for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures is “legitimate and rightful” and calls on Britain “to reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece on the matter.”
Most importantly, the Committee acknowledges for the first time that “the case has an intergovernmental character and, therefore, the obligation to return the Parthenon Sculptures lies squarely on the UK Government.”
This is in stark contrast to the UK government’s assertion that it is for the British Museum, not the government, to discuss the issue and make decisions related to it.
“We disagree with the Committee’s decision adopted in the closing minutes of the session and are raising issues relating to fact and procedure with UNESCO,” a UK government spokesperson told Parikiaki.
“Our position is clear—the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law at the time. The British Museum operates independently of the government and free from political interference. All decisions relating to collections are taken by the Museum’s trustees,” the spokesperson added.
A British Museum spokesperson told Parikiaki that “the Trustees of the British Museum have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care,” adding that “the Parthenon Sculptures are an integral part of (the Museum’s collection) story and a vital element in this interconnected world collection.”
Greece insists that it is the rightful owner of the Parthenon Marbles. The Greek government says that the sculptures were illegally removed from the Parthenon during the Ottoman occupation of Greece in the early 1800s.
In his first interview with a European newspaper since becoming the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson dashed Greece’s hopes of getting the Marbles back, telling Greek daily Ta Nea that they were “legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s Trustees since their acquisition.”
Britain had previously rejected Greece’s request to hold talks on returning the Marbles after Athens proposed a meeting between experts from the two countries.
“We are all very glad about the outcome of the UNESCO meeting in Paris last week, where the Parthenon Sculptures were an item on the Agenda, and this now for nearly 40 years, ever since Melina Mercouri raised the issue in 1984. We congratulate Greece for its efforts to achieve this outcome and do hope that the UK will finally reconsider its stand and enter in a dialogue with Greece”, Dr Christiane Tytgat, President of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS), told Parikiaki.
“The Trustees and the British Museum cannot eternally ignore the growing pressure to return the Parthenon Sculptures, neither can they close their eyes for a growing consciousness when it comes to the legitimated acquisition of artefacts. The day will come we see the Parthenon Sculptures reunited in the Acropolis Museum. At least, there they can be seen, shining through the glass wall of the Parthenon room, even if the Museum is closed, day and night, 7 days a week, at the foot of the Acropolis, in visual contact with the Parthenon,” Dr Tytgat added.

Recommendation and Decision of the 22nd Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on the Parthenon Sculptures

The work of the 22nd Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Commission for the Return of Cultural Property to the Countries of Origin (ICPRCP) was completed on Wednesday 29 September 2021. One of the main issues on the Committee’s agenda was the issue of the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures (Greece v. The United Kingdom), which has been firmly on its agenda since 1984, when it was first raised by Melina Mercouri.
For the first time this year, the Commission, in addition to the Recommendation (21.COM 6) , which it has consistently adopted on the subject, unanimously voted for an additional text which is Decision 22. COM 17, exclusively aimed at the issue of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.
The Greek Minister of Culture and Sports, Dr Lina Mendoni, after the completion of the work of the Intergovernmental Committee, made the following statement:
“Greece’s request for the final return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens has been on the agenda of UNESCO Intergovernmental Committees on the Return of Cultural Property to the Countries of Origin (ICPRCP) since 1984, when it was first introduced by Melina Mercouri and continues to remain there today.
“At the 22nd session, which ended on 29 September 2021, Greece succeeded in issuing, for the first time, a Decision of the Intergovernmental Committee concerning the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. The Committee urges the United Kingdom to reconsider its position and to negotiate with Greece, acknowledging that the matter is intergovernmental – contrary to the British side’s claim that the case concerns the British Museum – and that Greece is claiming rightly and legally the Return of the Sculptures to the native land. Both texts, of the Recommendation and of the Decision, are a very important development in the completely legal claim of our country.
“I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart the members of the Greek delegation, as well as our Permanent Representation to UNESCO, who with special dedication to the issue of the Sculptures, worked systematically and achieved this extremely positive result.”
The added value of the Decision is that the Commission expresses its strong dissatisfaction with the fact that the resolution of the issue remains pending due to the United Kingdom’s position. In addition, it urges the United Kingdom to reconsider its position and enter into a bona fide dialogue with Greece, emphasizing the intergovernmental nature of the dispute.
Accordingly, the text of the Recommendation reflects, inter alia, the Commission’s concern that the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum, where the Parthenon Sculptures are on display, is closed to the public due to the need for restoration work.
Greece’s just demand for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures was strongly supported by the members of the Committee.
The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon in supporting Greece and nations across the globe, which have all recognised the significance of this peerless collection of sculptures and the exceptional top floor Parthenon Gallery in the Acropolis Museum, applaud these ICPRCP recommendations and this new decision.
“We are all looking forward to dialogue. It is our collective respect for the Parthenon, which deserves to be the catalyst for change, starting with honest talks to resolve the long-awaited reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. The time is now,” concludes Dame Janet Suzman, Chair of the BCRPM.

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