The cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures in 1938

In early 1939 there was press interest in rumours that unauthorized methods were used during the process of cleaning the Parthenon sculptures for display in the newly constructed Duveen Gallery (Room 18).

Contemporary reports, both official and unofficial, indicate that copper chisels and carborundum (silicon carbide) were used in addition to the recommended water and soap on some of the sculptures. As a result, the British Museum held an internal enquiry and the officers responsible ceased Museum employment.

An official statement was issued to the press on 18 May 1939 and questions were asked in Parliament. The Trustees resolved to publish a full report on the effects of the cleaning, but the outbreak of World War II intervened. The issue was for the most part forgotten within the academic community until the 1980s and 1990s. On 30 November and 1 December 1999 the British Museum held a scholarly conference as part of its series of Classical Colloquia. This addressed the visual and documentary evidence for the cleaning with the aim of determining how and to what extent the surface of the sculpture may have been changed. It also looked at wider issues concerning the history and theory of conservation.

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