A few years ago, I was involved in removing a priceless treasure from the British Museum. Ian Jenkins, the museum’s senior curator of Greek antiquities, was my co-speaker at a Guardian event and he brought along a small bronze divinity, more valuable than any of the 2,000 or so pieces now missing from the museum’s vaults. This was something senior staff could do, he explained, so long as they returned the item before midnight. We shared a taxi afterwards, and I saw him go into the darkened museum with it.
In retrospect, this looks like part of a quaint, gentlemanly regime in which curators were permitted an easy, intimate relationship with objects in their care. That has gone wrong in a seismic way in the very department Jenkins ran up to his death in 2020, with the chronic, cumulative loss of overlooked items from the stores, many from the renowned Townley Collection assembled in the 18th century.
Commentators and even members of parliament are queueing up to point out how this reveals the hypocrisy and decadence of a Victorian colonial institution. But I’m not sure this crisis has anything to do with the Parthenon sculptures, Benin bronzes or other controversies. It’s about crime and security. It is also about the purpose of museums.
A 21st-century museum is now expected to be a public space, a media-friendly buzz creator and, most recently, a corrector of its own past. But in reality, museums have one job, which the British Museum has failed at: to preserve and protect the objects they contain. Interpretation, debate, critique – these all come second, and don’t really have to be done by the museum at all.‘This crisis has nothing to do with them’ … the controversial Parthenon sculptures at British Museum. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
This suspected crime, or series of suspected crimes, exposes the vulnerability of our great collections. The losses show the sheer richness of objects that the British Museum has – and how important it is to protect and cherish even the smallest and dustiest item. Every fragment is a piece of history. When it’s gone, we remember less.
Museums don’t win awards or get reviews for their security systems. But they should. A code of honour is not adequate. A good detective or cop expects the worst of everyone and recognises the frailty of our natures. That’s why another London museum, the V&A, was wise to appoint a professional art detective, Vernon Rapley, as its head of security in 2010.
Rapley came from the Met’s art and antiques unit and made security a systematic, central aspect of the way the V&A works. When I go to that South Kensington museum to see an exhibition before it opens, I have to enter through a special entrance with a sentry booth. This feels like a place that even a curator would be scared to try to rob.
"The public are subjected to severe scrutiny, made to wait in long queues to be searched in an ugly white tent
The V&A and British Museum have similar problems: huge, rambling collections of Victorian pedigree and earlier, including thousands of items in the stores. But the V&A seems to recognise that crime is always waiting to happen and acts accordingly. The British Museum apparently has been living in a fantasy world where no employee ever has a dark impulse.
Is it fair that Hartwig Fischer has had to resign? Yes, because there isn’t anything more important for museums to do than safeguard their collections. It may be that Fischer and his colleagues naively failed to follow up an antique dealer’s report of seeing artefacts online two years ago, and then tried to discredit him. Furthermore, it’s galling that, while Fischer unwittingly may have let staff help themselves, he has subjected the public to severe scrutiny, with long queues to be searched in an ugly white tent in the courtyard.
Improving the most miserable museum entry process in Britain is one job for a new director. That’s easy compared with putting right this ludicrous, tragicomic fiasco. The British Museum has to professionalise itself. It needs an aggressive reform of all aspects of security. But this has to go along with better funding and pay.
The British Museum has to accept it is now in crisis. Many people think everything in it is colonial loot, which is nonsense. The new director will need the eloquence and integrity of the great Neil MacGregor to explain what is great about this museum, and why it serves a crucial purpose: why so many people come and queue, from so many places. Indeed, is MacGregor available?
The power collapse at the museum has left the chair of trustees, George Osborne, as its spokesperson and effective boss, but as in his previous political incarnation, austerity may be the real source of the rot. If British Museum curators get the powers of Victorian gentlemen while being paid a 1950s salary, you can see how professionalism could decay. Not that everyone is going to turn to crime to pay the bills. But being an expert doesn’t make you a saint, as what may be the strangest of slow heists has shown.