The British Museum deserves industry leading collection management, but recent news shows that its practices are antiquated
Thefts from one of the most famous museums in the world, The British Museum, has garnered international attention over the past month.1
On 16 August 2023, the British Museum confirmed approximately 2,000 artefacts from its inventory of 8,000,000 objects had been stolen over a twenty-year period. The thefts are thought to have been carried out by one or more members of the museum's staff.
In light of this, the British Museum, well known for their collection of artefacts from many cultures around the world, has received renewed calls to return objects to their countries of origin. Statements from countries such as Greece, Nigeria and China have questioned the reliability of the museum and their ability to preserve and protect the precious artefacts in their possession.2
Whatever the British Museum's response may be, this is an issue that will take many more years to resolve. A more immediate issue is the potential impact to the facilitation of loans more broadly around the globe. Many institutions have an active loan programme where they loan to one another. The recent news, however, may cause museums to pause and ask more questions of borrowing museums before lending their collection to them and insist on more onerous conditions when it comes to security.
This isn't the first time that a museum staff member has been a suspect in a theft from their own museum. In 2015, it was discovered that a librarian at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts had stolen more than 140 artworks worth US$ 6 million which he replaced with his own replicas. In 2018, a Carnegie Library archivist was charged with conspiracy in the theft of more than US$ 8 million worth of books, maps and rare items.
Were the objects insured?
Museums around the world should take this incident as a reminder to review their practices regarding loans and the protective measures they have in place. They are encouraged to be vigilant when reviewing the terms and conditions of insurance policies in place for their loans. In particular, museums must watch out for employee infidelity, mysterious disappearance and unexplained loss exclusions.
In particular, museums must watch out for employee infidelity, mysterious disappearance and unexplained loss exclusions.
In the case of the British Museum, its permanent collection is insured by the UK government under a cost-free alternative to commercial insurance. The paramount criterion is that this cover must be of public benefit as the underwritten risk is carried by the UK public purse. The British Government estimate that this scheme saves UK cultural institutions from paying approximately £15 million in insurance premiums each year.
However, with the UK government already under huge pressure with burdens in the National Health Service and the school system, and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, it could be hard to argue that funds should be diverted, when needed urgently elsewhere, to investigate the losses and compensate the British Museum for them given the alleged background to these thefts.
Instead, it might be beneficial that the government considers ceding the unwelcome financial responsibility of underwriting many of the largest cultural institutions in the UK to the commercial insurance market.
Collections management – an integral tool to protecting the collection
When we think of security in a museum, we often think of security guards, display cases, surveillance cameras and burglar alarms. These physical and outward displays of security may be effective deterrents against thieves with no insider connection, or even visitors who may be tempted to act on their impulsive thoughts. However, they offer limited protection against thefts committed by staff members who have much more liberal access to the collection, including objects that are not on public display.
The best defence against insider theft is collections management, in particular the documentation and cataloguing of objects. Thorough documentation and regular audits ensure that any discrepancy in inventory can be swiftly flagged, which can aid efforts of recovering stolen objects. Undocumented objects are highly vulnerable to insider theft – someone with knowledge of what is not registered could easily take them and the theft would go unnoticed.3 The presence of collection register also means that in the event of a claim, the item can be quickly identified on an insurance policy schedule, so that the claim can be processed quickly and easily.
Collections management is inherent to the work of museums, however it is not uncommon for institutions with vast collections, such as the British Museum, to not have everything fully documented.4 Despite having worked on their database for more than 40 years, the British Museum has pointed out that only about half of their collection is catalogued.5 The monumental size of their collection means that cataloguing it is an equally monumental task. For museums that were established before the digital revolution, they also have the added workload of digitising existing records. Slow progress is often attributed to staff shortages and lack of resources due to financial constraints.
All this points to the fact that it will be very difficult for the British Museum to prove their ownership of any uncatalogued items which were stolen when they attempt recovery and so reclaiming all items will be unlikely.
Useful risk management practices to adopt
Lessons can be learnt from this unfortunate incident. Museums and institutions around the globe should take this opportunity to re-examine their current protocols and procedures in place and ensure that they prioritise upgrades to their collections management. They can undertake some risk management practices including:
- Make a catalogue of all collection and loan items and maintain a backup copy. Include a description of each item including title/medium or materials used/ artist/ year or period/ measurements and insurance value.
- Review security procedures for exhibitions, collection storage areas, and transportation of items, and include registrars, curators, facility teams and security personnel in the review process.
- Check employment references and perform criminal history checks on all employees.
- Establish different levels of access controls. Access to high valued items should have higher level granted access or cross verifications between senior staff.
- Prepare an emergency response plan in the event of a theft.
- Keep in regular contact with local police and stay vigilant regarding possible threats.
- Keep in regular contact with your insurance broker and keep them informed of any changes to security or if any high value or profile loans are being planned.
- Report all thefts to the police within 24 hours.
- Perform visual inventory and spot checks of the collections on exhibition and in storage. It is also helpful to check the condition for any changes in conditions (e.g mould or foxing) so that damage is spotted quickly and doesn't develop too severely.
As Christopher Marinello, Founder and CEO of Art Recovery International said, "With a lot of art crime, there is nobody to arrest and people rarely go to prison. It's just a matter of recovering the work."6
1. BBC News, 26 August 2023: What we know about the British Museum thefts so far. Return to article undo
2. The New York Times, 1 September 2023: A Scandal and Its Fallout Compound the British Museum's Woes. Return to article undo
3. BBC News, 26 August 2023: British Museum recovers some of 2,000 items stolen. Return to article undo
6. The Guardian, 5 May 2021: 'We go after them like pitbulls' – the art detective who hunts stolen Picassos and lost Matisses. Return to article undo
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