Karen K. Ho, British Museum Will Digitize Entire Collection at a Cost of $12.1 M. in Response to Thefts, ARTnews, 18 October 2023
British Museum has announced plans to digitize its entire collection in order to increase security and public access, as well as ward off calls for the repatriation of items.
The project will require 2.4 million records to upload or upgrade and is estimated to take five years to complete. The museum’s announcement on October 18 came after the news 2,000 items had been stolen from the institution by a former staff member, identified in news reports as former curator Peter Higgs. About 350 have been recovered so far, and last month the museum launched a public appeal for assistance.
The museum also announced plans for “enhanced access” to its study rooms, where members of the public and researchers can see items from its collection by appointment. As a result of the thefts, the British Museum has changed its rules regarding access to its “strongrooms”, with nobody allowed to go into one on their own any more.
On the same day the British Museum announced its digitization initiative, Jones and board chairman George Osborne gave oral evidence to the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Their comments included an explanation of how the thefts occurred, policy changes made as a result, and how the museum will handle whistleblower complaints going forward.
They also gave more details about the British Museum’s strategy for digitizing its collection, estimated at a cost of £10 million ($12.1 million). “We are not asking the taxpayer or the Government for the money; we hope to raise it privately,” Osborne said.
The increased digital access to the collection would also be part of the museum’s response to requests for items to be returned or repatriated. “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.” That is already available—we have a pretty good website—but we can use this as a moment to make that a lot better and a lot more accessible,” Osborne said.
After being pressed by committee chair Caroline Dinenage, Osborne said he was “not so surprised” items from the collection went missing, but that trust given to a member of staff was “completely abused” with records altered and “quite a lot of steps taken to conceal” what happened as a result of the “inside job”. He also emphasized that the staff member had been fired.
Osborne also said that the thefts may have taken place over a 20 to 25-year period, and the museum didn’t adequately respond after Dutch art dealer Ittai Gradel sent detailed emails to senior officials in 2021 of stolen items being listed on eBay for as little as $51.
Osborned called the decision to dismiss Dr. Gradel’s claims as a mistake, but said he wasn’t the museum’s chair of trustees at the time.
The chairman confirmed to the parliamentary committee that Fischer decided to retire earlier this summer after the board of trustees had questions about the director’s management, but that Fischer’s public comments about Dr. Gradel’s whistleblower complaint prompted his resignation in August.
The museum’s interim director said many of the stolen objects came the collection of Charles Townley, which was purchased by the museum in 1814. “The objects that we are talking about were thought very lowly of—were despised—in the early 19th century because people realised that many of them were in fact recent and not antique,” Jones said. “It is a real failure that the initial decision not to register them was never rectified.”
The news of the thefts prompted Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni to write in an op-ed for Ta-Nea that “the ‘hospitality’ provided to the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum has always been flawed, incomplete, and problematic”. When asked about this description, Osborne told the committee he had been in direct conversation with the Greek government about the desire to create a “proper partnership”. “That would mean objects from Greece coming here—objects that have potentially never left Greece before and certainly have never been seen in this country—and it would mean objects from the Parthenon collection potentially travelling to Greece,” he said.
Osborne also told the committee that the museum is hiring a search firm to find Fischer’s replacement, and it will advertise “in the next couple of weeks” for the position.