The 1930s cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum

Ian Jenkins

Parliamentary Questions 1939

S.F. Markham was 'Hon. Empire Secretary' of The Museum's Association and a Member of Parliament. Having seen Robert Byron's letter in the Sunday Times, he wrote to A. Esdaile, the Museum Secretary, advising that a written question should be submitted in Parliament.(88)

The next day Forsdyke was informed by F. N. Tribe of the Treasury Chambers in Whitehall that Markham had 'an unstarred Question on the Order Paper for answer tomorrow [18 May]:-

" To ask the Secretary to the Treasury, whether the Elgin Marbles have now been safely transferred to their new gallery at the British Museum; and any have suffered by removal or any cleaning process."

Forsdyke was asked whether he had any objection to the following reply:

"The marbles have not yet been transferred to the new gallery. So far as the latter part of the Question is concerned, I am informed by the Trustees of the British Museum that there has been some unauthorised cleaning of some of the marbles but it is not yet possible to determine precisely what the effect has been. I am assured, however, that the effects are imperceptible to anyone but an expert, and I think it follows that the intrinsic beauty of the marbles has not been impaired."

There was also to be a starred (written) Question from Mr Mander MP on 23 May, asking the Secretary to the Treasury, 'if he will state the present position with reference to the cleaning and re-erection of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.'(89). It is not clear whether this was in fact asked, but the Standing Committee Minutes of the Trustees for 10 June 1939 record that Mander asked the Question on 6 June and also enquired whether 'it was correct that the resignation of two officials was connected with the unauthorised cleaning, and that disciplinary action had been taken.'

The same minutes record that on 26 May, Lieut.-Commander Fletcher asked 'whether the unofficial cleaning of the Elgin Marbles continued over 15 months, what steps were taken to bring the methods employed to the notice of the Director during that period, and, in a further question, why the Director did not occupy his official residence.' Capt. Crookshank, Financial Secretary to the Treasury had answered that 'unauthorised cleaning took place for about 15 months prior to last September, and that the cleaning of material was in the care of Keepers of Departments.'(90)