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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Seeing White: What was Said and Not Said at the British Museum

The scandal of the cleaning at the British Museum in the 1930s was never entirely forgotten, but it was not presented as an integral part of the story of the Parthenon Sculptures in the

Leaflet with the Parthenon in the background saying Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles
Leaflets were given out to visitors to the Acropolis in Athens in Greek or English, such as this one, making the case for restitution.

museum. A complete account of the cleaning, the report and the attempted cover-up by the museum was detailed by William St Clair, in the updated edition of his book Lord Elgin and the Marbles in the 1998. After exposing the cleaning scandal, St Clair questioned the British Museum’s claims of providing the best possible stewardship and care of the sculptures in London. In Greece, a new Acropolis Museum was being planned and emphasis was on restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures in time for the hosting of the Olympic in Athens in 2004. Against this backdrop, the revisiting of the cleaning scandal sixty years later generated press coverage at a time when Bill Clinton, then President of the USA, supported the restitution of the sculptures to Greece as did (according to speculation) the Prince of Wales ('Charles', 1999). Clinton’s support, coming as it did after the bombing of Kosovo earlier that year (see the first blog in this series), may have been more of a diplomatic overture to the Greeks and part of wider geopolitics. There was much press and academic attention on the British Museum's two-day conference on ‘Cleaning the Parthenon Sculptures’, which was the first academic conference I attended. As I blogged previously it was simultaneously eye-opening, thought-provoking, off-putting and, in parts, downright nasty. It possibly explains my ambivalent relationship with academia.

The hefty conference pack that I received as an attendee included printouts of museum documentation from the 1930s and later accounts (from autobiographies, for example). It also included the detailed outline of events that would be given by Ian Jenkins, the curator responsible for the Parthenon Sculptures, on the first day. Both St Clair and Jenkins gave a version of the events in the 1930s at the conference that were hostile to each other’s interpretation and scholarship. For example, Jenkins accused St Clair of attacking the museum and ‘too ready to see conspiracy where there is only cock up’ (Jenkins, 2001: 55-56). In a potted cultural history of the Parthenon Sculptures at the conference, classicist Mary Beard noted that Duveen’s intervention was now a ‘part of history’ and is part of the object biography (Beard, 1999). This emphasis on ‘object biography’ has been criticised by Dan Hicks as neutralising questions of acquisition and the impact of colonial violence (Hicks, 2020: 26-30). I still think the idea of object biography has a place but agree with Hicks that this emphasis on objects absorbing their histories does not adequately deal with their political agency.

In a balanced review of the conference at the time, Claire Lyons pointed to the questions ‘ethical and technical’ with regard to the cleaning of the sculptures that the conference attempted to address: the ethical was around public accountability and stewardship, the technical around the damage and conservation of ancient sculpture. Lyons noted the debacle of conference attendees having sandwiches and drinks while invited to touch the sculptures, describing the bizarre lunch break as reflecting a ‘cavalier attitude infected by national patrimony’ (Lyons, 2000: 181 & 183). Lyons was one of the view observers to underline British ‘national patrimony’ but considered Duveen’s obsessions with whiteness as simply a ‘anachronistic aesthetic’ attitude. Only St Clair briefly pointed to the adulation of the sculptures by Robert Knox and that ‘notions of whiteness interlinked with notions of race’ (St Clair, 2001: 409, note 54).

Editorial entitled Greeks demanding gifts
The editorial from The Telegraph, 29 November 1999, published the day before the conference started.

Race played its own part in the conference proceedings. Arguably it was part of the reason that the final session ‘nearly came to blows’ and not just, as Mary Beard has observed, ‘the gap’ between the ‘intrinsic importance’ of the sculptures and the ‘moral fervour’ in which the cleaning was discussed (Beard, 2002: 173). There was wide coverage by the international and British press of the proceedings. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph a few days before the conference repeated the claims of Knox, Ellis and numerous others about the ancient and modern Greeks being unrelated:

‘The present Greek population is largely descended from the invaders who settled Greece [. . .] towards the end of the first millennium’ (‘Greeks’, 1999).

The inversion of the image of the Trojan horse and never trust Greeks bearing gifts in the title and the references to a Byzantine Emperors and writer makes the classical leanings of the editorial clear. A Greek delegate from the embassy brought up this editorial on the floor of the conference, describing it as insulting to Greece and Greeks. In response, the classical archaeologist John Boardman commented that the museum and other delegates were not responsible for the British press and did not share the views of the editorial. However, there was little acknowledgement of the hurt caused. Boardman’s response reflected his view (later published) that ‘folk [were] more interested in restitution than conservation’ and ‘[Greek] national sentiment or politics were a betrayal’ in conversations about the Parthenon sculptures (Boardman, 2000: 260). Boardman did not consider or acknowledge that there was any British national sentiment!

In a column for the Sunday Telegraph a few days after the conference, the columnist Auberon Waugh made the racialisation of the sculptures and the racism towards the Greeks more explicit. Waugh wrote that the modern Greeks:

[. . .] are no relation whatever to the ancient Athenians – the modern Greek is short and swarthy, descended from generations of Turkish occupiers whereas the ancient Athenian was fair and long-limbed – the presence of the Elgin Marbles would serve as an even more hurtful daily reminder. (Waugh, 1999)
Waugh, from his column in the Sunday Telegraph, 5 December 1999.

Waugh’s column should not just be dismissed as a provocation. It mirrors long established racist views echoing racist attitudes to the modern Greeks, even re-using Robert Knox’s terms ‘swarthy’ and ‘fair’. The vested interests of Waugh in retaining antiquities and colonial assumptions are made even clearer in a paragraph about his 'Great Uncle Lord Carnarvon' and Tutankhamen later in the same piece (see left). The Greek complaint about the earlier article was brushed aside as about national politics, just as the whitening of the Parthenon Sculptures was considered to be due to misguided aesthetics rather than racialised aesthetics.

Restitution was not the only issue undiscussed at the 1999 conference, but it was at least recognised as being the barely spoken topic in the room. In retrospect, a glaring absence in the ethical deliberations of the conference was how Lord Duveen was allowed so much access and power over the sculptures with his continued fame as the donor named for the ‘Duveen Gallery’. This point may be more obvious in the aftermath of the Sackler scandal, in which the firm / family made large donations to museums and galleries in the UK and USA from profits made through exploitation of opioid addiction (Adams, 2019). A number of museums and galleries have since re-named their ‘Sackler’ spaces. The ethical issues around donors, PR and funding for public institutions have not been resolved as illustrated by the continuing controversy about oil companies, such as BP and Shell, sponsoring exhibitions at museums and galleries (including the British Museum) amidst the climate crisis (Robertson, 2019: 255).

Yet, the greatest omission at the 1999 conference was a full cultural and political analysis of the reason it was held, the whitening of the Parthenon sculptures. Charmaine Nelson has highlighted how the whiteness of skin and marble has largely been ignored in critical analysis of nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture (Nelson, 2007). This is true, until recently, of the reception of sculptures from classical antiquity too. Nelson's description of ‘double whitening’ – to describe the whitening of both skin and marble – is crucial to understanding chromophobia and how the Parthenon Sculptures were racialised as white in the British Museum. I now believe that this omission has assisted the continuing toxification of Classics, including the use of classical sculpture by white supremacists, and undermined serious attempts to deal with colonial violence in the museum space.


Adams, Geraldine Kendall (2019), ‘Museums urged to distance themselves from Sackler name’, Museums Journal, 17 April 2019 [accessed 28 June 2021].

Beard, Mary (1999), ‘Cleaning the Marbles: a brief cultural history’, Cleaning and Controversy Conference, 1 December 1999

(2002), The Parthenon, London: Profile Books.

Boardman, John (2000), ‘The Elgin Marbles: Matters of Fact and Opinion’, International Journal of Cultural Property, 9 (2), 233-262.

‘Charles supports call for Greece to get Marbles’ (1999), The Sunday Times, 28 November 1999, 5.

‘Greeks demanding gifts’, Daily Telegraph, 29 November 1999, 21.

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

Jenkins Ian (2001), ‘The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Accuracy and Reliability’, International Journal of Cultural Property, 10 (1), 55-69.

(2001) Cleaning and Controversy: the Parthenon Sculptures 1811-1939, No. 146 (Occasional Paper), London: British Museum Press.

Lyons, Claire L. (2000), ‘Cleaning the Parthenon Sculptures. British Museum, London, England (Nov 30 - Dec 1 1999)’, International Journal of Cultural Property, 9 (1), 180-184.

Nelson, Charmaine (2007), The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth Century America, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

O’Neil, Mark (2004), ‘Enlightenment Museums: Universal or Merely Global?’, Museum and Society, 2 (3), 190-202.

Robertson, Geoffrey (2019), Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, London: Biteback Publishing.

St Clair, William (1998), Lord Elgin and the Marbles. The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

‘The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Stewardship and Accountability’, International Journal of Cultural Property, 8 (2), 391-521.

Waugh, Auberon, ‘Why men are so drawn to the marbles’, Sunday Telegraph, 5 December 1999, 39.

Wilson, David (2002), The British Museum. A History, London: British Museum Press.

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