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Museum admits damaging Marbles and accuses Greeks of neglecting treasures

THE BRITISH Museum's cleaning of the Elgin Marbles in the Thirties was a "cock-up", but nowhere near as serious as the way the Greeks have neglected the Parthenon sculptures that remain in their care, a museum employee told a conference yesterday. Ian Jenkins, the assistant keeper of the department of Greek and Roman antiquities, said that had the Elgin Marbles not come to the museum in 1816, they would not have survived so well.

"This is not an opinion, it is fact," he said. "The tragedy of my generation has been to witness the progressive deterioration of the sculptures that have been left until recently on buildings on Athens, while some are still exposed."

Dr Jenkins was speaking at a conference for archaeological experts convened by the British Museum after the publication of a new edition of Lord Elgin and the Marbles by the Cambridge historian William St Clair. Mr St Clair accused the museum of causing irreparable damage to the sculptures by scraping them to make them white, and of covering up the extent of the damage.

The Greek delegation at the conference reacted angrily to the assertion by Dr Jenkins that Greece did not look after its art heritage. The delegates saidthey thought they had come to talk about the British Museum's record on maintaining the sculptures, not their own. They were also horrified that Dr Jenkins urged those attending the conference to touch the masterpieces.

Dr Jenkins added: "The British Museum is not infallible. It is not the Pope... its history is a series of good intentions marred by the occasional cock-up. The Thirties cleaning was such a cock-up." But the events were history, he said, and all those involved were dead.

Opening the two-day conference, the director of the museum, Robert Anderson,admitted publicly for the first time that there had indeed been a cover-up of the damage inflicted on the sculptures.

But, he added: "Secrecy may have been true in the past but now we are truly committed to openness. We are not angels. We are all capable of misjudgement."

Mr St Clair was unimpressed by Mr Anderson's confession. "They have had 60 years to decided that openness is a good policy. It is a rather late conversion and has only come about because of the overwhelming pressure of my historical work," he said.