In recent months, UK Museum collections have come under intense scrutiny, with headlines echoing the ‘alleged’ thefts of up to 2000 objects from the British Museum. This investigation has broadened and intensified as media outlets pursued Freedom of Information requests, revealing thousands of unaccounted-for objects in various other Museums. However, the director of the Museums Association (MA), Sharon Heal, contends that the media coverage has been misleading and detrimental to Museums’ reputations.
One of the recent revelations came from Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales, which disclosed that 1,921 objects, including Roman tiles and coins, a bronze age sword, axe, javelin head, royal medals, and pottery, are currently missing from its collections. In response to a BBC report, the Museum clarified that a significant number of the items were duplicates, and it expected most of them to be recovered as they meticulously worked through their extensive collection.
Similar tales emerged from other note-worthy institutions, adding to the unfolding narrative of missing objects. The Imperial War Museums (IWM) reportedly lost 560 items, ranging from drawings for the Illustrated London News to miniature replica weapons and wartime posters. Meanwhile, the Natural History Museum is said to have 540 missing items, including parts of a dinosaur fossil and microscopic slides.
Museum leaders caution against hastily concluding these numbers, arguing that missing items in collections numbering in the thousands are not unexpected. Sharon Heal emphasised, “It is unsurprising that, with collections amounting to tens of millions of items that have been collected over many decades, some might be missing or unaccounted for.”
The bottom line is that the media narrative neglects the rarity of theft from museum collections by those within the institution. This abnormality is fortunate, emphasising the dedication of those working in Museums to the ethical stewardship of cultural artefacts. She also attributed the challenges in collections documentation to systemic cuts in Museum budgets over the years.
“Funding cuts restructures, and redundancies have led to a loss of expertise and a weakening of the normal systems of checks and balances, as well as slowing down digitisation and documentation programs, and collections research,” Heal explained. The consequences of these budgetary constraints are becoming evident, with the complexities of managing vast collections intersecting with financial challenges.
The movement of objects within and outside Museums is highlighted as a standard part of Museum operations involving loans, outreach, acquisitions, or disposals. This usual ebb and flow is integral to Museums’ dynamic engagement with their collections and communities. Heal emphasised that the Museums Association has recently released “Off the Shelf,” a toolkit supporting the ethical transfer, reuse, and disposal of collections.
As the narrative around missing Museum objects unfolds, it becomes evident that the complexities of managing vast collections intersect with financial challenges. The media’s focus on missing items often overlooks the broader context in which Museums operate, portraying a distorted image that can tarnish their reputation. Sharon Heal urged a more nuanced understanding of Museums’ situations, emphasising the need to acknowledge the tireless efforts of Museum professionals working against financial constraints.
While the numbers may be alarming at first glance, the rarity of theft within museums and the ongoing commitment to responsible collections management should not be overshadowed. Museums, with collections that span decades and sometimes centuries, face a continuing challenge to document, digitise, and maintain their vast repositories. Heal’s call for increased investment in Museums is a rallying cry for recognising these institutions’ vital role in preserving cultural heritage and fostering community engagement.
In the wake of these revelations, it is crucial to reassess the narrative surrounding missing Museum objects. Rather than fueling sensationalism, a more balanced understanding of museums’ challenges can pave the way for constructive discussions on fortifying these cultural bastions. Looking ahead, it is incumbent upon policymakers and stakeholders to heed Heal’s call for increased investment, ensuring that museums receive the support they need to navigate the complexities of managing and safeguarding our shared heritage.
National Portrait Gallery:
The National Portrait Gallery, basking in the glow of its 2023 grand reopening after a meticulous three-year refurbishment, finds itself in the spotlight of scrutiny. A revelation of 45 items labelled “not located” has sparked inquiries, but the gallery adamantly asserts that these items have not slipped into the abyss of theft or nefarious plots.
Among these enigmatic disappearances, notable mentions include a drawing of Queen Victoria from 1869, a mid-19th Century engraving immortalising King John’s Magna Carta proclamation, a bronze sculpture of painter Thomas Stothard, and a 1947 negative image capturing the regal union of the late Queen to the Duke of Edinburgh. The gallery, maintaining composure, states that the ongoing searches for items post-refurbishment contribute to the “not found” status, constituting a mere 0.02% of its extensive collection boasting 12,700 portraits and 164,000 images.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), a bastion of design and innovation, grapples with a peculiar tapestry of absence. Over 180 missing artefacts have raised eyebrows, ranging from oil and watercolour paintings to shadow puppets, false moustaches, drawings, underpants, stockings, and even a mousetrap. Curiously, no detailed descriptions or timelines accompany this catalogue of disappearance, with the Kensington design institution deeming it “standard practice” to maintain a list of missing items during routine audits.
A V&A spokeswoman, adopting a measured tone, underscores the museum’s unwavering commitment to national collection protection. The absence of these objects, the spokeswoman suggests, doesn’t necessarily imply theft or loss; rather, it might be a consequence of outdated catalogue entries post-collection move. An assurance is issued, stating that items regularly resurface as part of the ongoing auditing process.
The Horniman, renowned for its captivating displays spanning anthropology, natural history, and musical instruments, faces its symphony of disappearance. Seven artefacts, including a protective charm from 1933, have embarked on their own journey. In response to these musical vanishing acts, the Horniman, in a strategic move, announces a security review, undoubtedly prompted by recent thefts at the British Museum.
Imperial War Museum:
The Imperial War Museum, the guardian of historical military artefacts, unveils a disturbing revelation of over 550 missing objects. Ship camouflage drawings, British Army officer’s private papers, a calendar adorned with Saddam Hussein’s photograph, and currency notes are part of this eclectic inventory of losses. Adopting a pragmatic tone, a museum spokesman attributes these losses to a bygone era predating current collections management systems. Notably, the objects are deemed low-value and mass-produced, invoking a sense of historical detachment.
Royal Museums Greenwich Group:
The Royal Museums Greenwich Group, home to esteemed institutions such as the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, grapples with an absent inventory. About 245 items, including a cannonball, a navigational aircraft computer, a gun-sighting telescope, charts, liquid compasses, an Act of Parliament, an Altazimuth circle, and ribbons and bands for caps, have slipped through the archival cracks. The museum attributes these discrepancies to potential “ghost entries,” resulting from data transfer from primitive databases, incorrect documentation, or historical human errors. However, amidst this tapestry of disappearance, a glimmer of hope emerges—560 items have been rediscovered since 2008 through diligent audits.
In this realm where art meets finance, the valuation of absence becomes a nuanced exploration. These museums, facing a symphony of missing artefacts, navigate the delicate balance between historical oversight and a commitment to rectifying the ghostly gaps within their illustrious collections.