The British Museum, often hailed as a bastion of cultural heritage, has found itself grappling with a scandal of its own making. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, also serving as the board chairman, expressed deep concern about a recent revelation: items from the museum’s collection had been stolen. However, this time, the focus was not on the contentious Parthenon Marbles or other disputed artifacts; instead, the museum faced allegations that approximately 2,000 items were pilfered by a senior curator, Peter Higgs, and subsequently sold on eBay over a potentially years-long period.
This audacious plot twist of a curator turned alleged poacher sent shockwaves through the institution. While museums worldwide have often laid claim to being safe havens for global culture, shielded from the debates surrounding repatriation of historically looted pieces, the British Museum’s own sanctity seemed compromised, plunging it into the deepest crisis it has ever faced.
The situation raises a series of crucial questions: What is truly amiss within the hallowed halls of the British Museum? How can it navigate these murky waters and regain its revered status? The aftermath of Higgs’ dismissal was marked by the resignation of Director Hartwig Fischer, a sign of the tumultuous nature of the moment. In addition, Deputy Director Jonathan Williams opted to step back while an impartial review into the thefts was underway. Yet, critics have raised concerns about the selection of Sir Nigel Boardman to head the review, given his deep institutional ties during the period of the alleged thefts.
Osborne’s commitment to “right the wrongs and use the experience to build a stronger museum” is a step in the right direction. The public was stunned to learn that a substantial portion of the museum’s collection remained uncatalogued, potentially providing cover for thefts to go unnoticed. This revelation underscores a pressing need for change not just in personnel but in the broader institutional culture and strategic priorities.
While the museum’s online Collection was launched with much fanfare, listing over four million objects, this amounts to only a fraction of the estimated eight million objects under the museum’s care. Merely 1% of these objects are on display in its galleries. The outstanding four million remain unaccounted for in the public database. The museum’s decision to relocate items from storage facilities, catalyzed by the sale of Blythe House, offers an opportune moment to address the neglect of basic documentation standards for its treasures.
The British Museum’s sprawling collections, while impressive, might be too vast to be effectively managed. The surreal image of a curator unknowingly adding artifacts to an eBay database instead of an internal system is a potent symbol. Accurate inventories have taken center stage in global debates about restitution since the Sarr-Savoy report in 2017. Without proper documentation, it’s challenging to demand the return of stolen property.
The roots of the issue lie in more than just inadequate record-keeping. Osborne’s role in imposing cuts on arts and culture budgets underscores the broader struggle facing many institutions. Regional collections, despite holding significant cultural value, have been adversely affected, while national museums operate within the intricate web of governmental priorities.
The complex governance structures of national museums can hinder accountability. Many major English museums hold “accredited” status, necessitating adherence to documentation policies and plans. Yet, city and regional museums often lack the necessary resources for proper cataloging and curation.
The immediate priority for the next museum director is to establish an accurate, publicly-accessible database of collections. A shift toward repatriation of stolen items on a case-by-case basis seems inevitable, potentially beginning with the Parthenon Marbles.
The crisis may serve as a catalyst for a reimagining of museum curation. By investing in meticulous record-keeping, institutions like the British Museum can better fulfill their role in educating and enlightening the public. As we unearth the mysteries hidden within these collections, we stand to gain deeper insights into our shared history and humanity.
In this digital age, accurate documentation can transform the British Museum into a dynamic institution aligned with contemporary values, enabling it to regain its rightful place as a guardian of global culture.