Editorial: Theft and woe at the British Museum should lead to change

It’s been a rough month for the British Museum. In mid-August, the museum announced that it had fired an employee and contacted Scotland Yard to investigate a years-long campaign of theft that included some 2,000 items, mostly jewelry, gold, and semi-precious gems. The pieces date from the 15th century BCE to the 19th century CE. The fired staff member has been identified as Peter Higgs, curator of the museum’s Greek collections, whose family members have protested that he has committed no crimes.

The thefts were initially identified by Ittai Gradel, an art dealer who noticed some items he suspected came from the British Museum’s collections that ended up on eBay, being sold for a fraction of their estimated value. A piece of Roman onyx jewelry, for instance, was listed on eBay with a minimum bid of £40, reports The Telegraph, when the actual value of the piece is around £25,000 to £50,000. Gradel contacted the museum in 2021 about these discoveries, but was reportedly told there was nothing to worry about and that “the collection was protected.”

The museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, now says the museum “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have” in 2021. He has since resigned over the scandal, and his deputy, Jonathan Williams, has stepped back from his role while an independent investigation into the thefts takes place.

British Museum Grand Court [Diliff, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0]

Naturally, this has led to fierce criticism of the British Museum from many parties, notably other countries who feel the museum is unethically holding onto property that rightfully belongs to them. Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister, has used the occasion to lambast the British Museum’s continued holding of the Parthenon Marbles, sometimes justified by claiming the British Museum is the institution best suited to caring for such wonders.

“The thefts by the responsible curator, but also the proud silence of the leaders who neither take care of their collections nor implement the appropriate security measures, proves that the ‘hospitality’ provided to the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum has always been flawed, incomplete, and problematic,” she said in an opinion piece for Ta Nea, as translated by Artnet News.

“The ‘guarding’ of the sculptures in the British Museum has proven to be disastrous and dangerous. The urgent need for their reunion, in Athens, is now an act of justice,” she continued.

Other countries, including Nigeria, China, and even fellow U.K. nation Wales have made similar complaints and demands for repatriation.

There is a certain amount of showmanship going on here – the stolen objects in this case were all small enough to fit in a pocket and obscure enough that they wouldn’t be missed for years. No unscrupulous curator is going to lift one of the Benin Bronzes off of display and carry it home on the bus. But these critiques do bring up some significant issues that everyone who cares about the past should think through.

The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum. Image credit: Txllxt TxllxT – CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71169285


As Jo Lawson-Tankred mentions in Artnet News, only about half of the British Museum’s eight million items in its collection have been fully cataloged. Most of the stolen items in the current scandal never appeared on the museum’s website. This makes it easy for items to go missing and never be noticed, because the museum barely knows that they own the items in the first place. There are literally millions of items sitting in storage, barely known to the institution that houses them, and completely unknown to scholars or the general public.

To me, that begs the question – what is the point of stockpiling such a voluminous collection in one institution, exactly? In theory, a great international museum like the British Museum is supposed to provide a comprehensive look at the material history of our species, preserving its collection for the enjoyment of visitors and the research of scholars. But this model is not succeeding. At a certain point, a single institution is just hoarding objects beyond its capacity to study, care for, and display. Commentators have noted that properly cataloging the rest of the British Museum collection is an astronomical amount of work that there simply aren’t enough resources to accomplish – especially when a starting curator with advanced and specialized training is paid only about $39,000 a year.

I rather like the idea put forth by Elizabeth Marlowe, director of the museum studies program at Colgate University. “That concentration of resources in a single place is not only totally impractical, it’s totally unethical,” she told Artnet News. “A new director could start a semi-permanent long-term loan initiative where the collections are distributed more evenly across the country and, ideally, across the world. To redistribute wealth, and also to distribute the burden of cataloguing.”

I have always held the opinion that it would be a better world if instead of investing so heavily in just a handful of “great institutions,” we focused on bringing up the average, so that we can benefit as many communities as possible – and give more artifacts their due. We should be thinking less about the strength of any one museum’s collections and more about the health of the entire world of material culture.

And maybe that extra distribution of wealth and knowledge would make it harder for would-be thieves to slip the occasional Roman jewel into their pockets, as well.

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