By Catriona Miller
The British Museum is a world-famous institution, renowned repository of global culture and one of the UK’s top visitor attractions. But there have been a series of high-profile problems. Can it really maintain that status?
When David Lodge called his 1965 comic novel about a wayward English student in Swinging Sixties London, The British Museum is Falling Down, the phrase seemed amusingly preposterous. He might as well have named it: ‘the sky is falling in’. The museum was established in 1753, and since the mid-nineteenth century has been housed in a classically-inspired design by Robert Smirke, which looks like it has stood for millennia. As recently as 2000, it was Museum of the Year, proudly opening the Foster and Partners-designed Great Court, which transformed an unused space around the old Reading Room into the largest covered public square in Europe. Today, however, Lodge’s title seems more prophetic than humorous. The museum is literally and metaphorically crumbling.
In August 2023 it was revealed that a member of staff had left their post after items were found to be missing from the collection. In a damaging drip-feed of revelations, it transpired that the number of stolen items could be as high as two thousand and the thefts took place over a twenty-year period. It seems there are no photographic records for many of the missing items and cataloguing for much of the collection’s eight million items remains chaotic. This despite the museum being warned by the National Audit Office as long ago as 1988 , that its record-keeping was substandard.
Worse still, the Museum had first been alerted to the thefts in February 2021, when a Dutch art dealer, recognising an object being sold on eBay, contacted them. He accused management of "sweeping it under the carpet" after they claimed the items were accounted for and took no further action. Now the police are involved and an active search for the missing items is underway. However, the story is likely to remain in the news for some time to come.
The thefts are the most serious of a number of issues over recent years. Structural problems led to the closure of the Greek galleries in 2021, with pictures of water dripping onto some of the Parthenon marbles being widely reported in the international press. In February the museum was forced to close as front-of-house staff went on strike over pay. This year's critically acclaimed ‘China’s Hidden Century’ exhibition was overshadowed by accusations from a Canadian-based translator. After their words were used uncredited in a display of Qiu Jin’s poetry, the museum was forced to apologise and remove a section of the exhibition.
The British Museum is also grappling with the same issues facing other cultural institutions. Visitor numbers have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels: according to The Art Newspaper’s annual survey, in 2022 the museum, which along with Tate Modern is the capital’s most visited cultural attraction, recorded numbers 34% below 2019 figures. Nor has the museum escaped the general squeeze on UK funding which has seen cash for the arts slashed. A National Audit Office report in 2020 showed that organisations, including the British Museum, had only been allocated 54% of the £78m funding they requested for "genuinely urgent or critical repairs". Money problems have been exacerbated by loss of sponsorship as museums cut ties with controversial businesses. In June the British Museum’s twenty-five year partnership with BP came to an end, and followed the removal of the Sackler name from galleries in 2022.
The biggest ongoing issue is that of restitution. Progress in the dispute between the UK and Greece over the Parthenon Marbles may well have been undermined by news of the thefts. The British Museum has also found itself swimming against the tide in its refusal to discuss the return of over 900 bronzes looted from the kingdom of Benin. In the aftermath of the thefts, Nigeria, Greece and China renewed their calls for the return of items, and even Welsh politicians demanded restitution of artefacts like the 4,000-year-old Mold Gold Cape from London to Cardiff. In the light of the thefts, it is increasingly hard for the British Museum to argue that it is the best, safest place, especially given the new state-of-the-art facilities, like the New Acropolis Museum opened in Athens in 2009 and plans for a Museum of West African Art in Benin City.
Hartwig Fischer, director since 2016, had said in July that he would be standing down in 2024. He and his deputy subsequently announced their immediate departure, leaving the museum under caretaker leadership just at a time when stable management is required. It was due to unveil an ambitious Masterplan this autumn, described as a multi-generational £1 billion project. But it is difficult to see how this can now go ahead as planned. It seems unlikely that corporate or private sponsors will be keen to endorse the institution whilst the theft remains in the news. Government funding is also likely to come with strings attached, most notably to improve auditing and cataloguing.
However, perhaps this summer’s crisis can represent a new beginning. The museum – and the government who have the ultimate authority here – need to rethink their stance on deaccessioning and restitution. Oxford University's Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums, has been making an effective case for transparency, co-curation and cooperation for some time. Eight million objects are simply too much stuff, especially as only about 1% is actually on display. As art historian Bendor Grosvenor recently tweeted: "our major museums need to refocus on getting items out of storage. Spread their collections liberally around the nation, to smaller institutions."
It would be ironic if the thefts led to the realisation that in 2023 you have to let things go in order to rebuild.
About the Writer:
Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.