The British Museum must prioritize the renovation of its dilapidated Greek and Assyrian galleries as part of its ongoing Rosetta project, an ambitious plan to modernize its infrastructure and re-display all of its collections. A master plan for the overhaul was agreed by administrators last month.
A museum spokesperson declined to say when the renovation of the Greek and Assyrian galleries is expected to begin and end, what its expected cost is and, most importantly, where the Parthenon Marbles will go while work is underway.
The chairman of the British Museum’s board, former British Chancellor George Osborne, is now trying to raise £1billion to fund the Rosetta project, making it the most expensive museum overhaul in British history .
Although the entire museum is being revamped, no area of the building needs more urgent attention than its western block, the oldest part of the museum, which houses Greek and Roman art, Assyrian sculpture and part of the Egyptian collection.
Its shoddy conditions fueled calls for the permanent return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens for display in the state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009.
Several galleries in this part of the museum have been closed to the public on several occasions in recent years due to leaking roofs and crumbling infrastructure. Fans to increase air circulation have been positioned throughout the West Block over the past year.
On a visit last November we found that an Assyrian antiquity was covered in plastic to protect it from dripping water from above and we also noted that the Parthenon sculptures had remained out of sight for a whole year, first because of the pandemic, then because of a leaky roof in an adjacent gallery.
At a trustees’ meeting the following month, the decision was made to prioritize the redesign of the Greek and Assyrian galleries. “After extensive discussion, the board of directors agreed that Western galleries should be the priority for the next phase of the Rosetta project,” according to the minutes of the December 2021 meeting. Three weeks ago, the directors have agreed on a master plan, the details of which will be announced in spring 2023.
The redesign of the western galleries will probably lead to their closure for several years; all works of art will need to be moved to storage, exhibited elsewhere in the museum, or sent on loan to other institutions. This may help explain the conciliatory statements made recently by museum president George Osborne regarding the exhibition of the Parthenon Marbles in Greece. On June 14, Osborne said in a radio interview that “there was a deal to be done” on sharing the Parthenon Marbles with Greece.
A spokesperson for the British Museum declined to confirm whether trustees were now seeking to arrange a loan of the 5th-century BC sculptures to Athens as renovation work is underway at the Greek galleries in London. However, in a major speech at the British Museum’s annual trustees’ dinner last night, Osborne tackled the issue of restitution head-on: there will be no dismantling of the museum’s collections ‘because we believe in a museum of common humanity,” he said. But maintaining the status quo, he added, was not enough either: “We can enter into partnerships. If you’re willing to find common ground with us, we’ll find common ground with you.
But there is little middle ground when it comes to the Parthenon Marbles. The Greeks have repeatedly said they would reject a loan of the sculptures and instead called for the permanent return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.
While the fate of the Parthenon Marbles is one of the most politically charged debates facing British Museum trustees, an arguably more pressing challenge is fixing the display of the museum’s exceptional collection of Assyrian antiquities. which is currently housed in shamefully dilapidated galleries with cracks. tiles, leaky roofs and outdated infrastructure.
The collection has rarely been available to the public in its entirety in recent years. Everytime The arts journal visited in the past three years, we found one or more of the Assyrian galleries closed.
Most recently, we visited the West Block on October 14 and then again on October 28. On both occasions, several of the Assyrian galleries were closed to the public. A museum employee working at the information desk told us that “these galleries are rarely all open”, but could not say why.
Asked by The Art Newspaper when all Assyrian galleries were last open for an entire month, the museum did not respond.