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Culture Wars: Playing with marbles

Art critic Michael Daley has argued forcefully that the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum. Here he explains why arts trustees cannot always be trusted

We now know that on 6 April 1939 Sir John Forsdyke, then the director of the British Museum, confessed to Arthur Hamilton Smith, an eminent authority on classical sculpture, that he could not say in writing 'even in confidence and to you, precisely what has been done to the Parthenon sculpture'. We also know that the director was nonetheless able to disclose that the indescribable 'cleaning' of the Elgin Marbles would shortly be the subject of a 'very fair statement, written by the editor, and unofficially approved by me, in the forthcoming number of Country Life'.

We know these things because the present director, Robert Anderson, released such embarrassing material in 1996 as part of the museum's present commitment to openness. William St Clair, author of Lord Elgin and the Marbles, was first to see it. His reading of it led to a revised and transformed third edition of his book, trailed in the Mail on Sunday on 7 June 1998 as the 'discovery' of a 'disaster' that undermined the British Museum's right to ownership of the Marbles. The museum called a two-day conference on the treatment of the Marbles and invited St Clair to be its opening speaker. He fared badly. His over-dependence - understandable, perhaps, in a former Treasury official - on documents was painfully apparent. (All speakers and panellists - of whom I was one - received copies of the papers shown to St Clair.) His initial claim that 80 percent of the sculptures overall, and fully half of the free-standing pediment sculptures had been injured, was abandoned. More damaging was his confession that, on the evidence of documents seen in 1998, he had been 'inclined to believe' that sculptures on the west pediment had been damaged when they had not.

St Clair's technical/aesthetic gaffes, when combined with his apparent refusal to see good in British records of stewardship of the Parthenon sculptures - or ill in Greek records - are doubly unfortunate. They discredit by association better-founded criticisms of other museum and gallery 'restorations'. And they undermine that part of his critique that is well-made and pertinent today: his analysis of susceptibilities to abuse that are intrinsic to the system of trusteeship by which museums and galleries are meant to be governed.

It is disturbing to look back half a century and see a classical scholar as distinguished as Bernard Ashmole prepared to accept a keepership on condition that he carry out 'some stonewalling...against journalists, questions in parliament, and ordinary enquiries...'. It is salutory to witness the subterfuges, dissimulations and procedural improprieties that comprised the 'Board of Inquiry' set up by the British Museum director's three principal trustees (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons) to investigate a scandal within his own institution. The museum director informs the chairman of the Board, 'I now find that all the members of your Board of Inquiry [are] in agreement with the view that there need to be no publication of the facts. I have therefore redrafted the last paragraph of your final report', barely three weeks before informing him that 'your report is not my business'. The archbishop, as chairman of the museum's trustees, soothingly informs the director that he and the Lord Chancellor (that is, the government's principal law officer) were of the opinion that 'no such express publication of what has happened...should be published' - even though one member of the Board of Inquiry, Lord Harlech, had specifically protested against his chairman's 'desire to hush it all up and minimise a bad job'.

When facts had to be published in order to pre-empt an imminent press exposé, journalists on friendly organs proffer sympathetic coverage: viz from the editor of Country Life on 30 March 1939, 'I am naturally anxious to cooperate so far as possible...to the fullest extent'. In a similar vein, the head of the Museum Association informs the director that he has connived to 'keep out of print' an article submitted to him for 'prior observations by one of the leading reviews'.

St Clair's observation that bodies set up by parliament under the management of trustees are prey to abuse because of their 'privileged lack of direct accountability' would seem incontrovertible. He notes how arrangements designed to protect cultural institutions from undue political pressures can fail if trustees conceive their function as that of board managers and place a narrow corporate interest above the public interest. Just such conflations seem widespread today. A former chairman of trustees at the National Gallery, Lord Rothschild, announced recently that the British way of trusteeship is 'to leave power very significantly with the director and the curators'. Such a policy at the National Gallery - the home of permanent restoration controversy - seems singularly remiss. Under the present director, Neil MacGregor, an apparently unauthorised - and certainly unwise - shift has taken place in the 'conservation' treatment of pictures. Formerly carried out 'to help preserve them', treatments today are made in order to 'unravel the complexities of construction, pigment and medium'.

One way of gauging the destructiveness or otherwise of restorers' tamperings and unravellings would be to consult the photographic record kept in dossiers on every painting. The gallery routinely denies access to these public records, even when paintings were last restored 40 or more years ago. There is, I have discovered, no redress. When, for example, the culture secretary Chris Smith was asked to investigate the circumstances surrounding the acquisition and treatment of the (challenged) Rubens Samson and Delilah panel, an anonymous departmental spokesman refused on the grounds that although 'this raises important points about the stewardship of trustees....[t]he government - and the public - have to have confidence in the decisions made by the director, curators, restorers and trustees'. Have to have?

An appeal made directly to the minister for the arts, Alan Howarth MP, on the same subject ran into the same sands: '...I should say that this is not really a matter in which I feel I can properly become involved. I have every confidence in the National Gallery's stewardship of public funds, and I have no reason to doubt the propriety of their actions in 1980 when the Rubens was purchased....' For all that I know, there may be one or two Lord Harlechs presently serving as trustees at the National Gallery. Must we wait another 60 years to find out?

Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000



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