In a shocking revelation, the British Museum, a bastion of cultural heritage, admitted it had fallen prey to a massive “inside job,” where approximately 2,000 artefacts vanished over a staggering 25-year period. During a parliamentary hearing, the startling disclosure came from the museum’s chair of trustees, George Osborne.
These brazen thefts, with objects dating back to ancient Greek and Roman periods, included gold rings, earrings, gems, and other precious items. Osborne revealed that the thefts were meticulously concealed, involving alterations to records, leading to a significant breach of trust. A museum staff member has been fired, and the Metropolitan Police are conducting an investigation.
The hearing revealed that more than “300,000 objects are registered but not digitised. Mark Jones, Interim Director of the British Museum, said: “Following the discovery that objects have been stolen from the collection, we have taken steps to improve security and are now confident that a theft of this kind can never happen again. “But we cannot and must not assume that the security of the collection, in a wider sense, can be achieved simply by locking everything away. It is my belief that the single most important response to the thefts is to increase access, because the better a collection is known – and the more it is used – the sooner any absences are noticed. “So that’s why, rather than locking the collection away, we want to make it the most enjoyed, used and seen in the world.
Jones added, “Over the next five years we have set ourselves the objective of improving and completing the online record of every object in the British Museum’s collection. It is a big task, with 2.4m records to upload or upgrade, but more than half is already done and when it is finished it will mean that everyone, no matter where in the world they live, will be able to see everything we have – and use this amazing resource in a myriad of ways.
George Osborne, The former Chancellor, said, “Recording objects is a “complicated task” following the suggestion that the institution did not have a complete catalogue of everything in its collection. He also revealed that records had been changed to cover the thefts, which he said took place over a “20 to 25-year period”.
During the session, George Osborne emphasised that steps have been taken to revamp security measures, including updates to the museum’s whistleblowing code and theft policies. The stolen items that have been recovered, around 350, will now be displayed for the public.
However, this revelation has raised serious questions about the museum’s internal security protocols, highlighting vulnerabilities within this revered institution. As the investigation unfolds, the British Museum faces intense scrutiny, and the spotlight remains on the security measures deployed to protect our cultural heritage.
The British Museum has asked the public to help identify and recover objects that have gone missing from its collection. The museum has now revealed that most are Greek and Roman gems and jewellery. The Museum has also shared pictures of similar items to the sixty objects that have been returned to the collection. An independent review of the museum’s security has been launched, and will also oversee the attempts to recover the items.
It’s important to note that the recovery process can vary greatly depending on the specific circumstances of the theft and the location of the stolen artwork. Cooperation between museums, law enforcement agencies, governments, and international organisations is crucial in successfully recovering stolen art and returning it to its rightful owners or institutions. The museum expects the digitisation project to take at least five years.
Photo: © Artlyst