A white, hermetically sealed door, secured by an electronic lock, is what visitors to the British Museum encounter when they attempt to admire the Parthenon Sculptures. The Sculpture Room, like five other rooms with Greek exhibits, has remained inexplicably closed for ten months, heightening fears in the international lobby for the return of the Sculptures that the damage to the Museum's glass roof, which has resulted in water dripping next to (!) the Marbles, has not been repaired.

A recent inspection of the British Museum, in Bloomsbury, Central London, revealed that the Duveen Gallery, the room housing the priceless ancient Greek treasures sculpted by Pheidias, is still inaccessible to the public, unlike the other rooms that have been open since last May, when the last lockdown in Britain ended. This is despite assurances from officials at the beginning of the summer that 'the "Greek" galleries will open soon'. A spokesman for the museum was unable to give specific answers, speaking generally of a "programme of repairs and maintenance" being carried out on the halls. As for when they will reopen? Sometime "later this fall"...

In total, six rooms with ancient Greek exhibits remain closed: rooms 15, 16, 17 and 18 (ed. the last one exhibits the Sculptures), which are not open due to "repairs", and rooms 19 and 20, which do not admit visitors due to "compliance with measures for the coronavirus". Surprisingly, Museum officials, when asked, give different versions of both the reason for keeping the "Greek" halls closed, from December 2020, and when they will reopen. We asked four members of the Museum's staff who have the authority to answer questions from the public, and received four different answers! "We don't know exactly when they will open. Maybe in a month. Do you live in London? If so, come back in a while or give us a call," the first employee told us. Why are the halls closed? Because of a leak in the roof, I asked her. "Yes, and also for general maintenance." "We hope the halls will be open by the end of the year," said the second museum employee we asked, also admitting that what is keeping them closed is the water leak. "You know, it's an old building", she explained. A third employee made the same admission. "We are working to address the leak," she noted, adding that "our expectation is that the halls will reopen before the end of 2021." However, a fourth employee disagreed with the previous officials: "Renovation work is taking place. The reports of leakage are rumours and are very 'far-fetched'. I think the hall will be opened soon," he said.

Representatives of the campaign to repatriate the Marbles are alarmed, even expressing concern about the integrity of the sculptures. On August 15, the International Association for the Restoration of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS), which represents 21 national commissions from around the world, wrote to the museum's president Sir Richard Lambert, its director Dr. Hartwig Fischer and its commissioners on the issue. In the letter - shown here - the Union expresses its "deep concern" that the hall remains closed, stressing that the "potential moisture problem creates a dangerous situation for the sculptures". At the same time, it calls on the Museum to "reconsider its position on the ongoing division of the Sculptures", noting its "moral obligation" to reunite all the surviving Sculptures in the Acropolis Museum". "It is sad that Room 18 has remained closed since last December until further notice," IARPS president Dr. Chris Titgutt said, noting that "the inadequate air conditioning conditions in the room are a cause for concern." "I hope," he added, "that we don't have to wait another 22 years to admire the Parthenon Sculptures in London again, as happened in 1940 when the Duveen Gallery was hit by a bomb and remained closed until 1962! Then, of course, the Sculptures were kept in a safe place and remained intact."

Almost two months later, the museum has not responded to the letter, which Dr. Titgutt calls "regrettable." "That they have not responded is extremely disappointing. I wonder if this is how they are having a dialogue on such a pressing issue? It is time for the British Museum and Britain to move into the 21st century," added Paul Cartledge, a renowned Cambridge Hellenist, vice-chairman of IARPS and the British Commission on Sculpture (BCRPM).

"I would be happy if Room 18 were closed permanently, rather than temporarily as it is now, because it would mean that the magnificent sculptures snatched by the looter Lord Elgin would be reunited in the Acropolis Museum," said Janet Susman, chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Sculptures (BCRPM). "No one can say with certainty what kind of works are being done in the Greek halls of the British Museum and for how long," the internationally renowned Shakespearean actress added, stressing that "the poor conditions of the Sculptures' display have been pointed out by the BCRPM on many occasions: portable heaters in winter, open fire exits in summer, water leaking from the roof when it rains. We call on the British Museum to allow the Sculptures to be reunited in the iconic Acropolis Museum."

The "Greek" halls were closed to the public on 16 December 2020, when the building was locked due to the lockdown imposed by the British government. The museum reopened five months later, on 17 May 2021. However, the halls of Ancient Greece remained closed, with officials continually postponing the date of their reopening. According to reports, the heavy rainfall on 25 July in London caused, once again, water to leak into the Marble Hall, within inches of the exhibits. Advocates for the return have expressed concerns that the moisture could damage the ancient works of art. The British Museum's website states that the "Greek" rooms are "closed until further notice" due to "regular maintenance work". Museum visitors walking to Room 18 - known as the Duveen Gallery - which houses the sculptures, are forced to stop at Room 23. There, a plywood door, recently installed as part of a temporary structure, blocks the entrance to the other Greek exhibitions.

The problem of leaking water in room 18 was first highlighted in December 2018. Since then, it has remained unresolved, with many commentators calling the situation unacceptable and embarrassing for a museum of Britain's stature. The poor exhibition conditions of the sculptures were also highlighted by UNESCO ten days ago, expressing "concern that the Duveen Hall is not open to the public due to necessary repairs" and adding that it "looks forward to its reopening in due course". Almost every time it rains torrentially and the rain is lengthy, water accumulates on the roof, which sometimes drips into the Sculpture Hall. Usually, the situation is handled with buckets placed next to the Marbles and rags spread on the floor! At the same time, signs of mould have been evident on the ceiling for at least 20 years. This time, however, it appears that the problem is more serious and has kept the hall closed for almost a year. 

In an exclusive interview in January 2019, the museum's director Dr. Hartwig Fischer had claimed that it was "a small leak" that was "fixed immediately". Reality, however, contradicts him. "It is shocking that a world-class museum has to close its rooms because of water or moisture leaks. Almost three years later, it seems that this 'minor leak' has still not been fixed. Instead, it has led to the closure of the hall for several months," said Marlene Godwin, International Relations Officer of the British Commission. She added: "The fact that we are not being told when it will open shows a lack of professionalism, to say the least." The last time the issue was raised was in August. "The conditions under which the sculptures are displayed at the British Museum range from offensive to dangerous," Culture Minister Lina Mendoni had said. However, a museum source claimed that "the problem with the leaks has been fixed".

In her statement, the Museum's spokeswoman refrained from answering when exactly the Greek halls will open and what kind of work is underway.

"The British Museum is housed in a historic and listed building. Its facilities are under constant evaluation. We have a team of experts who carry out regular inspections throughout the museum to identify risks to its collection and ensure they are managed appropriately. The care of the collection and the safety of our visitors and staff are our highest priorities.

"The necessary work being carried out is part of a programme of repair and maintenance of the building, which will enable other projects to be carried out on the Museum site in the future. Alongside these essential repairs, we are developing a strategic masterplan for the transformation of the British Museum in the future. This includes refurbishing our historic buildings and grounds, improving the experience of our visitors and an ambitious presentation of our collections in a different way over the next few years.

"Temporarily, rooms 15 to 18 on the ground floor are not accessible to the public. The Museum is developing a programme of work in these rooms. However, the scheduling of the work has been delayed due to the impact of the pandemic on the Museum's schedule. Additional work and inspections were carried out over the summer. These halls are currently closed to ensure the safety of our visitors and our collection while these inspections take place. In the past there has been some water intrusion in some areas of our halls that have been closed. We have not set a date for their reopening, but the goal is to open them later this fall."

Le Monde recently devoted an extensive report to the issue of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures in response to the "urgent" appeal made by UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee to the United Kingdom to reconsider its position. "Athens has been claiming these marble sculptures for 40 years, with a persistence that demands admiration," commented Michel Guerin, editor-in-chief of the French newspaper. He pointed to both the "ocean of support" for the Greek request and the silence of the major Western museums, which see the British position as a "floodgate": "If it collapses, it could open the floodgates of returns, and these involve tens of thousands of works acquired in questionable circumstances."