New Inquiry Finds British Museums Losing Cultural Artifacts

April 17, 2024

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By 

Elle Yap

Multiple museums in the United Kingdom have admitted to the loss of hundreds of important historical artifacts, as they continue to face scandals over their shoddy handling of important items. 

The new inquiry, pushed by the Independent, shows that the Imperial War Museum had lost over 539 items. The Natural History Museum also reported losses of over 13 items over the past five years. More museums across the United Kingdom have reported the loss or damage of items except for the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate.

The front of the Imperial War Museum in London. Photo by 	Launus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The front of the Imperial War Museum in London. Photo by Launus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The reported losses do not include items the museums are currently attempting to recover. Much of these are small items like mammoth teeth, a gastrolith sample, and a telephone handset from the first commercial passenger jet aircraft.

The museums have asked the public to see the losses in context of the largeness of their collections. Many of their collections can contain millions of pieces in storage. 

“While we have vigorous collection management and security procedures in place, due to the scale of the collection and with at least 1.3 million people visiting our seven museums per annum, some losses are unfortunately inevitable,” Museum Wales said in a statement.

Budget Cuts and a Change of Approach

The inquiry’s results showcase the continued deterioration of cultural work in the U.K., as the government slashes the budget of cultural institutions that are now forced to rely more on corporate donations

Many places have whittled down their teams significantly. Because of this, some have complained about the loss of expert and institutional knowledge from the museums. Many are complaining that this has also led to the loss of training for new workers. 

“The budgetary cuts did have a massive impact on investigatory powers. It was an incredibly small unit punching way above its weight with a worldwide reputation. When you start to strip the team from three or four people, it clearly will have an impact,” an anonymous source told the Independent

Inside of the Natural History Museum in London. Photo by Julian Herzog. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Inside of the Natural History Museum in London. Photo by Julian Herzog. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many individuals, like Art Recovery International chief Christopher Marinello, have criticized the British government’s handling of precious artifacts. “They need to accept that they and their staff do not own these objects and are merely stewards of the artworks for future generations,” he said. 

“With such a fiduciary duty to the public, they need to enhance their collection management and security protocols, report thefts to the police immediately, come forward with any objects that may be missing and post them publicly so dealers, auction houses, and collectors can check against these postings as part of their due diligence procedures.”

The Continued Controversy of British Museums

This new controversy comes on the heels of an even more damaging scandal. The British Museum is still dealing with the fallout of a previous theft. That revolved around former curator Dr. Peter Higgs, who allegedly used his position to steal and sell over 1,800 artifacts. The artifacts stolen included jewelry and ancient gems dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. 

Higgs denies these allegations, but the scandal caused former museum director Hartwig Fischer to resign in August 2023. Much of the stolen artifacts, including a bust of Athena and a glass cameo of Eros, was recovered or returned, and the British Museum plans to exhibit them publicly this year. 

The front of the British Museum. Photo by Heather Kennedy. Source: Flickr.
The front of the British Museum. Photo by Heather Kennedy. Source: Flickr.

“We promised we’d show the world the gems that were stolen and recovered, rather than hide them away,” museum trustee chair George Osborne said. “It’s another example of culture change under way at the British Museum, as we open up and take ownership of our own story.”

The results of the inquiry of other museum losses came as the new director for the British Museum, Nicholas Cullinan, took the position last week. 

Related reading: Museums in Makati and Manila you can visit for free (and for a fee)

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