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The British Museum: King of Thieves

British Museum Entrance

Museums are a crucial part of our society, preserving and displaying artifacts that help us understand and appreciate different cultures and histories. They bring history, art, and culture to life, and provide valuable resources for education and research.

The British Museum is a great example of this, with a collection spanning over two million years of history and culture, making it one of the most comprehensive collections in existence. However, despite its fame, the museum has faced its fair share of controversies, particularly regarding the ownership of certain artifacts.

British Museum Thefts Highlight a Need

In August of 2023, the British Museum reported that a staff member was fired after the discovery that an estimated 2,000 artifacts had been stolen over a “significant” period. The stolen artifacts were reportedly sold for far less than their estimated value on eBay, and while some of the artifacts have been recovered and returned to the museum, a significant number of them remain missing.

The museum was first notified of the potential thefts in February 2021, when gem specialist Dr. Ittai Gradel came across ancient gems owned by the British Museum for sale on eBay. Dr. Gradel speculated that the suspect was a senior curator and even provided the museum with a PayPal receipt that stated the suspect’s full name and email address.

However, the museum initially did not take these claims seriously. It would be several months later when former Deputy Director Dr. Jonathan Williams responded to Gradel, stating that an investigation had concluded that no illegal activity had taken place and dismissed Gradel’s accusations. The former Director Hartwig Fischer called Gradel’s claims “an outright lie” and even went as far to accuse Gradel of withholding information about other stolen items. Both Williams and Fischer resigned from their positions in the months after the thefts were revealed to the public.

In response to the thefts, the interim museum director, Mark Jones, announced a plan to digitize their collections. Jones stated, “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.”

This is no easy task to undertake as there are at least 8 million objects in the collection, the largest museum collection in the world. Luckily, the museum already digitized about half of its collection in 2020 to make it more accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are still approximately 2.4 million objects remaining to digitize and update other digital files. The process is expected to cost around $12.1 million or £10 million over the next five years.

The museum currently does not have the money to complete the project. The Board chairman, George Osborne, has stated that the museum plans to raise the required funds through private investors and donations rather than seek funding from the British government or taxpayers.

The British Museum’s Murky Legacy

Many people have pointed out the irony of the situation the British Museum now finds itself in.

For many years now, the British Museum has been under a lot of criticism for its refusal to repatriate certain items to its country of origin. Repatriation is the process of returning important cultural items and human remains to lineal descendants or descendant communities and nations. These artifacts are believed to have been taken or stolen from their country by the members of the British Empire.

Despite the controversies surrounding the museum’s ownership of certain artifacts, it remains a top tourist destination and a valuable resource for scholars and researchers. It is one of the most visited museums in the world.

When the British Museum opened in 1759, it was the first of its kind, a national public museum covering all fields of knowledge. Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection of curiosities to King George II to prevent it from being broken up after his death. A collection of curiosities is a collection of objects whose categories were yet to be defined in Renaissance Europe and are often considered the precursors to museums. At the time of his death, Sloane’s collection consisted of around 71,000 objects and subsequently has grown significantly throughout the years, largely due to British colonization.

As the collection grew, debates and questions arose regarding the legal claim of ownership and how some artifacts were obtained. For instance, artifacts like the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone were acquired under questionable circumstances, and as a result, their home countries have requested their return. In response, the British Museum has cited the British Museum Act of 1963, which states that the Board of Trustees is not permitted to dispose of items from the museum’s collections unless specific exceptional circumstances are met. Despite several years of discussion with the countries of origin about repatriation, little progress has been made. The controversy surrounding these disputed items has negatively affected the museum’s reputation, yet the British Museum continues to avoid returning them, and they remain on display. 

Even the museum’s digitization project is partly designed to avoid the repatriation of artifacts. Osborne stated, “Part of our response can be: ‘They are available to you. Even if you cannot visit the museum, you are able to access them digitally.'”

Despite this reasoning and the circumstances surrounding the decision, the digitization project is a positive trend that other museums should emulate. By making their collections available online, museums can reach a wider audience and help to preserve cultural heritage for future generations. Museums must approach digitization projects with transparency and a genuine desire to make their collections more accessible—rather than a way to avoid returning artifacts to their rightful owners.

Standing on Standards and Practices

The British Museum’s practices regarding the repatriation of artifacts do not reflect the standards of all museums across the world. Many museum professionals have spoken out against these practices. The British Museum’s practices regarding the repatriation of artifacts are not reflective of the standards of all museums across the world. Many museum professionals have spoken out against these practices, advocating for more ethical and transparent approaches to acquiring and displaying artifacts. The current and future generations of museum professionals, at least here in America, are being taught not to follow the repatriation practices of the British Museum and others like it. 

The British Museum has faced its fair share of controversies throughout its long and storied history. The recent thefts of thousands of artifacts have only added to the museum’s troubles. The decision to digitize the collection is a step in the right direction. By digitizing the collection, it will not only make it more accessible to the public but also help in preserving it. Moreover, digitization will also help to safeguard against future potential thefts.

If you have a valuable collection of your own to digitally preserve, Anderson Archival can help. With our expertise in digitization, we can help you preserve your precious collection in a digital format, making it easily accessible to you and others for years to come. Contact Anderson Archival today to start your digitization project!

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