• Debbie Challis

Seeing White: A Conference at the British Museum in 1999

In 1999 I attended a two-day conference at the British Museum. I was lucky to get a place, though I could ill afford the fee working as I was as a low paid ‘custodian’ at Eltham Palace for English Heritage. It was also between finishing my MA and starting my PhD so I could not even claim it as student expenses. Fortunately, my manager let me take the time off as training days. The conference,

Ionic columns of the Erechtheion (Acropolis Athens) with a person reading a book.
By the Erectheion with a book

simply titled ‘Cleaning the Parthenon Sculptures’, was an eye-opening introduction to the politics of restitution, poor ethical practice in museums and polite (and sometimes not so polite) snidery between academics and curators. It deeply influenced my decision not to base my PhD on the Parthenon Sculptures, though they featured in it, as I wanted no part of the tangled bitter back and forth declarations that I observed at the museum in 1999.

When I saw the sculptures in the British Museum and then visited the Acropolis in Athens in 1993, I became an ardent advocate for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece from the British Museum and elsewhere. Earlier in 1999, I had spent just under a month in Athens researching museums and how Ancient Athens was represented for my MA Dissertation (it was - as ever for me - an overly ambitious project and hybrid in terms of discipline). While there, the US and NATO allies sent airstrikes against Serbia due to the Serbs attempt to ethnically ‘cleanse’ Kosovo of Kosovan Albanians, following the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia only a few years earlier. There were demonstrations on the streets

Cover of my overly ambitious MA dissertation

of Athens as many Greeks felt solidarity with the Serbs, due to shared orthodox religion and a hatred of a former Ottoman oppressor that now translated (for some) as Islamophobia. Parts of the Greek press and some of the banners depicted Madeline Albright (then US Secretary of State) with an anti-Semitism worthy of the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer. These depictions and other articles I read while in Greece made me question my own philhellenism as well as some of the nationalist narratives around the sculptures return to Greece. I sat on the fence about restitution for years, while not accepting any of the British Museum’s counter claims for retaining the sculptures – particularly not Neil McGregor’s incredibly patrician view of the universal museum.

I didn’t really understand much of what was going on at that conference on 30 November and 1 December 1999. I could see that there was tension between representatives of the British Museum and the Greek government. Historian William St Clair and museum curator Ian Jenkins clearly loathed each other. It seemed to me that Oxford classicist John Boardman tolerated Cambridge classicist Mary Beard as if she was a piece of chewing gum stuck on his shoe. My minimal conservation training made me astonished that we had drinks and ate sandwiches while encouraged to touch the sculptures. At the same time there was clearly a laudable effort to understand what had happened in the 1930s but not, I now realise, why it happened. My more recent research into the uses of antiquity in eugenic ideas and racist theory has changed my mind to completely support restitution of the sculptures (and other objects from

Collage on front of my MA dissertation project book

the Acropolis) to Greece. Moving house last year and literally unpacking the conference material meant that it also unpacked in my head. Over lockdown I reread my notes and began to recognise other tensions underlying this conference. Tensions I had not fully picked up, I believe, because of my own unconscious white privilege and own naive beliefs about what it meant to be British

These blog posts under Seeing White detail some of that thinking and research. I am blogging them mainly as I am a researcher not in a university and therefore restricted as to what publications I can publish in that allow free access. Mainly though because this work is across disciplines and doesn’t really ‘fit’ anywhere, so to make it more of use I have included references . . . It is obvious that the Parthenon Sculptures are icons of art, democracy, national identity – Greek and British – and European identity. They are also emblems of contested heritage in seemingly endless debates over their restitution to Greece: their value comes in part from their dislocation (Hamilakis: 1999, 313). I agree with Dan Hicks that the ongoing claims and counter claims about the location of these sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, have ‘stifled any adequate engagement with colonial violence or cultural restitution’ in Britain more generally (Hicks, 2020: 25).* How the Parthenon Sculptures have been racialised as White in the British Museum had an impact on and in the 1999 conference that was ignored at the time, but to get there I’ll start with the 'father of art history' Winckelmann, take a look at writing of racist theorist Robert Knox from the 1850s and the loaded reasons behind cleaning the sculptures in the 1930s

These Seeing White posts unpack what Anthony Giddens has described as ‘fateful moments’ – phases when ‘things are wrenched out of joint’ or a ‘state of affairs suddenly altered’ – to understand key points in which the sculptures were racialised as white and then white-washed (Giddens, 1991: 113). Whiteness is usually unseen and, in its invisibility, becomes the norm. Invisible whiteness, as Nell Irvin Painter has pointed out, supports white privilege (Painter, 2010: 88). The construction of the Parthenon Sculptures as racialised emblems supported white privilege and colonial violence, not least within the hierarchy of displays in the museum itself, and not seeing their constructed whiteness continues to support white privilege.

*The term Parthenon Sculptures refers to the pediment sculptures, metopes and parts of the frieze that are in the British Museum, not in the Acropolis Museum, The Louvre or elsewhere. The term Elgin Marbles refers to the whole of the sculptures and architectural emblems taken from the Acropolis, for example a caryatid from the Erechtheion, not just from the Parthenon and bought from Lord Elgin by Britain in 1816.


Giddens, Anthony (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hamilakis, Yannis (1999), ‘Stories from Exile: Fragments from the Cultural Biography of the Parthenon (or Elgin) Marbles’, World Archaeology 31/2 October 1999, 303-320: 313.

Hicks, Dan (2020), The Brutish Museum. The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution,London: Plato Press.

Painter, Nell Irvin (2010), The History of White People, London: W. W. Norton and Company.

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