Cleaning of the Parthenon Marbles was undertaken over a period of fifteen months from 1938 to 1939, when museum workmen without official authorisation used copper tools to remove what they believed was dirt but was in reality the honey-coloured patina of the historical surface. An official statement released at the time and published in The Times stated that the commissioning of Lord Duveen's new gallery to house the sculptures presented a good opportunity to clean the sculptures and improve the surface appearance by removing spots of discoloration.

frieze detail On 8 October 1938 the British Museum Standing Committee found that "through unauthorised and improper efforts to improve the colour of the Parthenon sculpture for Lord Duveen's new gallery, some important pieces had been greatly damaged ". This resulted in disciplinary action being taken against two officials, Frederick Pryce, then Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, who was "given leave to retire from the service of the Trustees on account of ill health" and his assistant, Roger Hinks, who was formally reprimanded for neglect of duty and reduced ten years in seniority and in pay. He subsequently resigned and Professor Bernard Ashmole was invited to take charge of the Greek and Roman Antiquities in an honorary capacity.

The method of using a blunt copper tool was, however, denied by George Hill (Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum from 1921-30) who in a letter to The Times in 1939 stated that the cleaning method involved only soap and water and any resulting damage was imperceptible to the untrained eye. The Keepers of the Departments were stated as being responsible for the cleaning and were to issue instructions and supervise the process with direct responsibility to the Trustees of Museum and not the directors.

But Arthur Holcome, the Museum's Chief Cleaner, in a newspaper interview on 19 May 1939, stated that his cleaners

"were given a solution of soap and water and ammonia. First we brushed the dirt off the Marbles with a soft brush. Then we applied the solution with the same brush. After that we sponged them dry, then wiped them over with distilled water...To get off some of the dirtier spots I rubbed the Marbles with a blunt copper tool. Some of them were as black with dirt as that grate," said Mr Holcombe, pointing to his hearth. He admitted that several of his men had followed his example but claimed that there was no harm in it "because the copper is softer than the stone.(!) I have used the same tools for cleaning marble at the museum under four directors." (!!!)
A selection of journals, published under the title "The Gynmasium of the Mind: the journals of Roger Hinks 1933-63" and edited by John Goldsmith (1984), reveals further evidence of a cover-up; the cleaning was in fact ordered by Sir John Soames (the director of the British Museum at the time) at the request of Lord Duveen. Two crucial reports of the sub-committee of inquiry that investigated the cleaning and the deposition of the officials were, in 1984, still unobtainable. This, therefore, still undermines confidence in the official view that Pryce and Hinks, as official keepers, should have supervised more carefully a process that should rightly have reverted to Sir John Forsdyke, who took over as director of the British Museum from Sir John Soames.

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In the Public Records Office at Kew there is reference to a Foreign Office document labelled "Treatment of Elgin Marbles: use of copper wire brushes to clean the marbles thus damaging the surface". The file has been destroyed. The reoprt on the incident submitted by the Standing Committee to Sir John Fosdyke on 14 January 1939 is due to be made public this year.

There was further controversy over the cleaning of the marbles in 1983, when the British Museum was accused of speeding up the process of decay by coating the caryatid with a supposedly protective plastic film. The criticism was levelled by a leading Greek conservation expert, Professor Skoulidis, a professor of physical chemistry who is on the Acropolis conservation committee. Whilst no-one would question the British Museum's overall care of the marbles, this adds further weight to Greek anxiety to claim repossession.

Information supplied by the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, with additional information from the book "The Elgin Marbles: should they be returned to Greece?" by Christopher Hitchens.

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