A scandal and its fallout compound the British Museum's woes
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A scandal and its fallout compound the British Museum's woes
Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, in London on Aug. 27, 2020. Just days after the museum announced that it had fired an employee who was suspected of looting its storerooms and selling items on eBay, Fischer announced Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, that he was resigning, effective immediately. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

LONDON.- Visitors to the British Museum this week could be forgiven for thinking it was business as usual.

In the museum’s Egyptian galleries, tourists jostled to get a closer look at the Rosetta stone. Nearby, a teenager posed for a photo in front of a huge statue from Easter Island. In another hall, art students sketched a sculpture of a centaur from the Parthenon marbles.

But despite the air of normalcy, the world’s third-most-visited museum is in crisis.

Since news broke in August that an employee had been fired over the theft of potentially thousands of items from its storerooms, the British Museum has struggled to deal with the fallout, which is exacerbating challenges it already faced.

The museum is now deluged with renewed calls for the restitution of contested objects, and raising a huge sum for an impending refurbishment looks even more difficult. At a time when it needs leadership most, the museum is rudderless, after its director, Hartwig Fischer, resigned Aug. 25.

On top of those challenges, the institution has also recently been troubled by protests over a long-standing oil company sponsorship, shutdowns caused by striking workers and a flap over the uncredited use of a translator’s work in a recent show.

Chris Smith, a former British culture minister, said the museum was “certainly going through a difficult patch.” Its leadership needs to act decisively to restore its reputation, he said.

The British Museum could perhaps have muddled along if it were not for the thefts. But things started unraveling Aug. 16, when the museum announced in a news release that it had fired a worker for stealing “gems of semiprecious stones and glass” from its storerooms.

Two years earlier, an antiquities dealer, Ittai Gradel, emailed the museum with what he said was proof that a senior British Museum curator was selling items from the collection on eBay. The museum initially dismissed Gradel’s concerns but later made an about-face. In an interview with BBC radio on Saturday, George Osborne, the museum’s chair, confirmed that the museum had fired the individual identified by Gradel, and said that at least 2,000 items had gone missing. (The British Museum declined to comment and a spokesperson said Osborne was unavailable for an interview.)

In Britain, the thefts — for which no one has been arrested — have led to intense news media scrutiny of the museum’s security procedures and put a spotlight on the museum’s poor record-keeping.

Its digital archives include records for 4.5 million items, or about half the collection. The patchiness of the catalog has been the subject of criticism for decades. In 1988, the National Audit Office, a government watchdog, said in a report that the museum’s stocktaking and inventories were “unsatisfactory.” Because of “continuing staff shortages” it was “impossible” to say when the situation would improve, the report added.

Charles Saumarez Smith, a former director of the Royal Academy of Arts, said that other major British institutions, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, had largely completed computerized inventories since that damning report. “The big question is, why didn’t the British Museum?” he said.

Osborne, the British Museum chair, conceded in the BBC interview that inventory keeping was a problem and said that gaps in those records could be exploited. But he insisted that the museum’s global treasures were safe.

Even with such reassurances, lawmakers and museum administrators in Greece and Nigeria used the thefts as an opportunity to reiterate their calls for the return of the Parthenon marbles, sometimes called the Elgin marbles, and the British Museum’s collection of Benin bronzes.

Many of the artifacts in the museum’s collection, which was founded in 1753, were obtained when Britain ruled large swaths of the world, and were acquired by colonial officials and soldiers, as well as traveling anthropologists and natural historians. For decades, some activists and academics have viewed the museum’s collection as a cultural extension of empire, often highlighting the most controversial items in its collection.

After the killing of George Floyd in the United States in 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the museum’s collection came under even more intense scrutiny. It took some steps to highlight its links to slavery, including those of Hans Sloane, a physician whose collection formed the basis of the museum.

Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister, said in a statement that “the deplorable incident of theft” at the British Museum raised “a major question regarding the conditions of the protection and security of all of its exhibits.” Any argument that the Parthenon marbles are safer in London than Greece had “collapsed,” she added.

As existing disputes heated up, the specter of new claims loomed. The Global Times, a tabloid newspaper in China that is widely seen as a government mouthpiece, said in an editorial on Monday that the British Museum should return all 23,000 Chinese relics in its collection to Beijing. The British Museum was filled with artifacts of “questionable origins,” the newspaper added. (The Chinese Embassy in London did not respond to requests for comment.)

Nana Oforiatta Ayim, an art historian from Ghana who campaigns for the return of artifacts, said the thefts boosted the calls for restitution by all African countries, countering the “very racist and patriarchal and patronizing” claim that African artifacts were safer in European museums. Last week, Ayim said, the British Museum’s woes were the “main topic” of conversation at a major restitution conference in Accra, Ghana.

If record-keeping and restitution claims are long-term problems for the museum, the crisis also highlighted more immediate issues. This fall, the British Museum is scheduled to announce a major refurbishment project that The Financial Times has reported will cost 1 billion pounds (about $1.27 billion). That program will involve rearranging the museum’s collections, and upgrading its plumbing and electrical systems.

After recent cuts to government arts funding, the British Museum is expected to rely on donors to pay for most of that program. But philanthropists are often not interested in paying for mundane, necessary infrastructure upgrades, and the thefts and their fallout could increase some donors’ wariness to help with the project.

“An abrupt change in leadership always has consequences for philanthropy,” said Leslie Ramos, the author of a forthcoming book on arts giving, adding that “donors don’t want to be associated with bad apples.”

To restore confidence, the British Museum has commissioned an independent review to examine what went wrong and recommend improvements to security. Osborne told the BBC that the museum would also “accelerate” the process of making “a complete register of the items in its collection,” and that it had begun trying to recover all the lost items.

That could be difficult. Dick Ellis, a former leader of the London police’s art and antiquities squad, said the museum might “have to litigate to recover some of the pieces,” a costly process that might not even be possible if the artifacts have left Britain. Some countries, like Switzerland, allow buyers to keep artifacts if they were bought in good faith, Ellis said.

An interim director to lead the museum is scheduled to be announced within days, a museum spokesperson said in an email. Smith, the former minister, said it was “not the easiest moment” for anyone to take over leadership of the British Museum, but he said there would be many applicants for the permanent job regardless of the myriad challenges.

“It is one of the most wonderful museum jobs in the world,” Smith said. “There will be plenty of people who will relish the opportunity.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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