Inside job: what the thefts mean for the British Museum's future plans for the collection (2023)

The British Museum is now facing its most serious crisis in decades. On July 28, it was surprisingly announced that he became director of the museumHartwig Fischer would "leave his position" the following year.Then it happened on August 16shocking newsthat an undisclosed number of items, including antique jewelry, were stolen and that an unnamed member of staff was fired.

One day later,the press revealed that Peter Higgs, a trusted senior Greek and Roman curator, who has worked with the museum for over 30 years. In 2021 and 2022, he served as acting custodian (head) of the department, meaning he was actually promoted after the initial allegations were made – and continued to run the department after additional evidence was presented to the director. George Osborne, chairman of the trustees, said the museum has now "used all available disciplinary powers to deal with the person we believe is responsible".

On August 24, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: “Investigators questioned a man [unidentified]. No arrests. We have worked closely with the British Museum and will continue to do so. The investigation continues."

A recent post in theThe Daily Telegraphquotes an unconfirmed source as claiming thismore than 1,500 objects- probably "closer to 2000" - they disappeared or were destroyed. The items are said to be worth "millions of pounds". They were in the museum shop, were not on display and were taken for years.

All of this is happening at the worst possible time as the museum prepares to launch its master plan to completely renovate the building and completely re-exhibit the collection. This much-needed project will cost hundreds of millions of pounds and is unlikely to be completed before 2050.

Publication of the master plan has been delayed several times, and until Fischer's replacement arrives – perhaps next summer – the museum will effectively be in charge without full authority. Fischer's departure also comes at a time when issues of restitution are highly controversial, especially over the Parthenon marbles and the Benin bronzes.

Serious questions

Meanwhile, the museum must address the immediate problem of theft. Already serious questions are being asked about why Fischer, his deputy Jonathan Williams and the museum's head George Osborne and his predecessor Richard Lambert apparently dismissed the 2021 and 2022 theft allegations and failed to properly investigate them. This has been announced by the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).Art newspaperthat "he was informed in January [2023] that the museum was investigating possible irregularities in certain collections".

Fischer, a German citizen and former director of the Dresden State ArtCollections, took over as director of the British Museum in April 2016, following the departure of Neil MacGregor. His main task was to develop a comprehensive master plan for the building and its representation.

Fischer gave up a year after arrivinginterview with De Kunstkrantin which he presented his vision. He admitted that it is "not easy for museum visitors to get a comprehensive understanding" of major cultures, citing as an example that the Egyptian sculptures are on the ground floor and the mummies are on the top floor. Some geographic areas, notably Oceania, Australia and Latin America, are "partially or almost entirely" missing from the presentation. Fischer wanted a long-term project to renew and rethink the exhibitions, to present a more global, rather than European and Mediterranean view of culture.

In his interview, Fischer suggested that a lot would change during his directorship, but after more than seven years a master plan has still not been released. Progress has proved slower than expected, exacerbated by the start of Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020 and, more recently, theft.

The announcement of Fischer's departure followed a closed session of the trustees' meeting on June 29, which saw the regular annual review of executive targets and compensation. But the meeting was dominated by a confidential discussion of the theft, which resulted in his resignation six weeks later. Among the curators is Mary Beard, a prominent classicist, who must have been extremely distressed by the losses of the Department of Greece and Rome.

On August 16, it was publicly announced that the items were "missing, stolen or damaged", including "gold jewelry and jewelry of semi-precious stones and glass from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD".

The statement added: “The member of staff has been fired and the Museum will now take legal action against this individual. The case is also being investigated by the Metropolitan Police's Economic Crime Command.” We understand that Higgs was fired in early July.

When the loss was first announced on August 16, a spokesperson for the museum said that "in the interest of cooperating with the Metropolitan Police, we will not be commenting further on this matter at this stage."

However, a week later, Fischer made additional comments: “When the allegations were brought to our attention in 2021, we took them incredibly seriously and immediately launched an investigation. In 2022 we started a full audit, which revealed a bigger problem. I reported my concerns to the trustees and together we agreed to call the police. Every step of the way, my priority was to care for the British Museum's incredible collection."

Inside job: what the thefts mean for the British Museum's future plans for the collection (1)

Independent review

An independent inquiry has now been launched, led by Nigel Boardman – solicitor and trustee of the British Museum until 2017 – and Lucy D'Orsi, Chief Constable of the British Transport Police. They will initiate and support a robust missing object recovery program and make recommendations for future security arrangements.

His duties include an examination of the museum's written procedure for reporting unlocated and lost property to see if it has been applied appropriately – and if it needs to be redrafted to deal more carefully with suspected losses .

Allegations of theft were first raised by Danish gemstone expert Ittai Gradel, who reported the case to Williams in February 2021 and to Fischer four months later. The head of the museum (Richard Lambert at the time) should probably have been informed of this seriousness, since ownership of the collection had been entrusted to the curators.

After the museum seemingly largely ignored Gradel's concerns, he wrote to Osborne in October 2022, who took over as chairman in October 2021. Gradel was then told that there was "no evidence to support the allegations".

You would think that the DCMS, the main funder of the museum, should have known by then. Under the "Management Agreement," the museum must have "effective controls to prevent fraud and theft" and is required to report to DCMS "all instances of attempted, suspected or proven fraud ... as soon as they are discovered." But it was not until January 2023 that the DCMS was notified, although that was certainly suspected earlier.

Surprisingly, when announcing the theft on Aug. 16, Osborne said he and his fellow trustees only "realized earlier this year that items from the collection had been stolen." Osborne was previously warned about the theft, until October 2022.

In January 2023, Tom Harrison arrived to take over as the head of the Greece and Rome Department from Higgs, acting director at the time. Harrison is thus forced to help solve the theft and its damaging effects on his department.

Unusually, no details about the lost items have been released. Usually, after a museum theft, photos of stolen items are published to alert the shop and the public and thus increase the chances of recovery. There may be particular factors that would make this imprudent in the case of the British Museum, but it seems more likely that the curators are simply unsure of exactly what went missing due to the lack of extensive documentation. The few items identified could be the tip of the iceberg.

While the theft is now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, it should be stressed that no one has yet been arrested or charged, suggesting that the situation is complex. Higgs' son Greg told the media: "I don't think [his departure] was fair. I don't think there's even anything missing, as far as I know."

In an announcement about the theft, Osborne said: “Our priority now is threefold: first, to return the stolen items; second, to find out what, if any, could have been done to stop it; and third, do what it takes, with investments in security and collections data, to make sure this doesn't happen again.”

The master plan is missing

The theft will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the progress of the master plan, which until last year was called 'Project Rosetta'. (IfArt newspaperreported in May 2023, was this namequietly felldue to Egyptian refund requests to RosettaStone.)

In July 2022, Osborne stated in the museum's annual report that details of the master plan would be released "later this year". In November he announced: “Three weeks ago the trustee agreed on a master plan that will allow for a complete refurbishment of the British Museum. Details will be announced next spring.”

Spring subsequently passed, and the master plan "will be announced this fall," according to a July 28 statement on Fischer's departure. One can only speculate, but Fischer and Osborne may have believed that this summer would be an inauspicious time to launch the project and massive fundraising campaign.

The master plan will be very ambitious due to the sheer size of the Bloomsbury museum building and its huge collection (with just over 50,000 objects on display). The announcement of Fischer's departure states that it will take "several decades" and that it will be a "multigenerational project".

This will probably be the largest museum venture in Britain in the first half of this century. At least in the short term, fundraising is now likely to prove even more challenging. The controversies surrounding Sackler and BP highlighted the sensitivity associated with corporate funds; Covid-19 has made fundraising difficult; and Putin's invasion of Ukraine excludes most potential Russian donors.

Osborne hoped for government financial support for the master plan in the form of a one-time grant. Discussions about this turned out to be controversial and the minutes of the trustees from March have been obtained fromArt newspaperaccording to the Freedom of Information Act, it refers to "the challenges in releasing government funds and the associated risk".

While no one knows more about public finances than Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer (2010-2016), the Treasury Department is reluctant to support the museum until the issue of the theft is satisfactorily resolved.

Potential private and corporate donors are also likely to be concerned about supporting a museum that has allowed its collection to be compromised. So it will be difficult to start serious fundraising until an independent security investigation has been completed – and all necessary reforms have been made.

Regardless of the timing of the master plan announcement, Fischer will now not be responsible for its delivery. In principle, that will have to wait for the arrival of his successor, perhaps next summer.

After the publication of the master plan, an international competition for the selection of an architect will be held. The first part of the museum to be tackled is likely to be the western ground floor galleries, which currently house Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek antiquities.

Inside job: what the thefts mean for the British Museum's future plans for the collection (2)

Implications of the Parthenon

Another lingering problem that remains unsolved is the Parthenon marble, where a Fischer-Osborne rift may have developed. Last February, Osborne suggested that a loan partnership could be negotiated with Greek museums: "There is a way to see the sculptures in both London and Athens, and that will be a win for Greece and for us."

Fischer was less vocal about Marbles, seemingly sharing the vision of his predecessor, MacGregor: a collection for the world and for the world, meant to stay together forever. Under the British Museum Act 1963, divestment is normally prohibited. Fischer generally placed less emphasis on restitution and more on international cooperation and loans. For him, the master plan represents an opportunity for the museum to become a more global institution, "through dialogue."

Progress at Marbles has been slow and there is no doubt that the theft will bolster the resolve of the Greek squad. Lina Mendoni, the culture minister, has already said the controversy over the stolen items means there are questions about “credibility of the museumAnd that the continued outcry "reinforces our country's sustained and just demand for the reunification of the Parthenon marbles in the Acropolis Museum in Athens," she added.

The second major problem of the British Museum's restitution isam bronze. Progress was again slow, partly because of the delicate question of whether the loans should be made to the Nigerian state or to Beninoba(king). It now appears that the Nigerian state may relinquish this privilege to the Oba.

In terms of media coverage of the museum during the Fischer period, the issue of BP sponsorship became important. The energy company's long-term sponsorship contract expired at the beginning of this year and was, probably in consultation, not renewed. Questions are still being raised about whether to change the name of the BP Lecture Theater which opened in 2000.

Interestingly, Fischer says he hopes to address the issue of museums and climate change after he leaves, suggesting that he personally feels strongly about the importance of the topic, even if he doesn't share the protesters' goals and tactics. He also pushed for the British Museum to go greener and use more renewable energy sources.

In retrospect, Fischer's most important long-term achievement will probably be seen as the creation of the British Museum's new warehouse, replacing the existing one at Blythe House, West London. Built with £50 million of public money, it is located 40 miles away in Shinfield, south of Reading. It will be known as the British Museum Archaeological and Research Collection (BM_ARC) and is expected to open late next year, a few months after Fischer's departure.

And what are Fischer's personal plans? Announcing his departure, he commented: “I am excited about the next phase of my career, which will see me leave the institutional framework of a museum to become involved in the rescue and preservation of cultural heritage in times of climate crisis , conflict, war and violence. " .

Recruitment for Fischer's successor will begin in the coming weeks, following the next Supervisory Board meeting in early October. The search will be international and the head of the British Museum could be another European. The main task of the new director will be to ensure that security is tightened, paving the way to move forward with the master plan.

UPDATE 25 augustus: Hartwig Fischer announced today that he is resigning "with immediate effect".


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