TAITMAIL British Museum: solving the £1bn problem is just the start

A month ago this column asked what on earth was going on at the British Museum, its director having announced his departure next year in an announcement made a few weeks before he was due to reveal the “multigenerational” masterplan he had been hired to develop. 

There were rows about returning “stolen” objects to their countries of origin, there was apparently a deal in the making for quenching the 200-year-old dispute over the Parthenon sculptures, the BP sponsorship the director was clinging to (but now ended), and there had been a tiff with the government over what to do about the BM’s founder Hans Sloane having made his fortune from slavery in the Black Lives Matter dust-up (Sloane’s portrait bust was moved from the main entrance to a low shelf in a side gallery).

But what has now transpired has blown all that out of the water. Two years ago an antiquities dealer spotted not one but several items he recognised from the BM’s collection for sale on eBay. He drew the attention of the museum’s high command to it and was loftily waved aside. “Nothing missing from here” said the deputy director dismissively.

In fact, around 2,000 objects, mostly minor pieces of jewellery, had gone missing, suspected stolen in some cases, and a senior member of staff has been sacked followed, some months later, by Scotland Yard being called in. What a mess. Now the director has left, the deputy director has “stood back” (but it seems has already been replaced by the BM’s director of science, Carl Heron) and it has been left to the chairman to waffle in the media about “faulty groupthink”, a damaged reputation, and the recovery of some unspecified pieces being under way.

When the previous director, Neil Macgregor, was confronted by the then latest Greek demands for the return of the Parthenon sculptures once their new Athens museum was built, a major pillar of his argument was that nowhere in the world could this pre-eminent treasure be better cared for and interpreted than in the British Museum, a repository that was not merely for objects of British origin but of the cultures of all the world. As a result of the current omnishambles, to use a word beloved by the museum’s chairman George Osborne, the cultures of all the world are demanding their objects back in the light of the BM’s patent, in their view, inability to care for them, and the Greeks have redoubled their demands for the return of the marbles which they expect to appear on eBay any minute now if they’re not returned to Athens today.

There’s so much that spills out of this story, not least the woefully inadequate funding for our national museums which could be evened up with a European-style tourism hotel tax as suggested often in this column. There’s the low regard in terms of salary for our curators, 99% of whom just love objects and would never dream of supplementing their meagre income by plundering the museum stores. And then, did all the missing pieces legitimately belong in the BM’s possession anyway?

It is estimated that the British Museum has about eight million objects of which maybe 1% is on show. What is frustrating efforts to track down what may or may not be missing is that there is no up-to-date inventory – unbelievably, the BM doesn’t know what it has and hasn’t got. A lot of that material is important for research reasons even if not of general public interest, but much of it is either duplicated within the holdings, irreparable or of no real importance. 

All our museums need to have constantly up-dated digital records, a hugely complex operation but one which would have obviated the BM’s current travails. 

They urgently need to get rid of things they don’t need, and not by resorting to eBay. Objects not of interest to the BM now could be key to some other public collections to which they could be at least loaned – overseas if appropriate. But while some museums are occasionally allowed, under the Museums Association’s code of ethics (which says that “Society can expect museums to safeguard the long-term public interest in the collections”), to off-load pieces they have duplicates of, our national museums are forbidden under the 1983 National Heritage Act to “deaccession” objects and all welcomed the ban – the National Gallery at the time said that not only would it not deaccession anything, it didn’t want the power to.

That’s changed. The National Museums Directors’ Council commissioned Mark Jones, the former director of the V&A, to compile a report he called Too Much Stuff? and his conclusion was: 
“Collections are held not for the benefit of individual institutions, but for the public as a whole. Museums should therefore be willing to dispose of objects when this will better ensure their preservation, ensure that they are more widely used and enjoyed, or place them in a context where they are more valued and better understood. Disposal should be regarded as a proper part of collection management, but if it is to be successful it must be properly resourced and carefully conducted.”

That report was written exactly 20 years ago, and nothing materially has changed. A year later Karen Knight, who used to run Reading’s museums and later was part of the old Museums and Galleries Commission, addressed what was almost as big an issue then as it is now: restitution. The argument then was about whether overseas claimants had a case in reclaiming from our museum collections, but she saw a different issue: “I would argue that there is a need for an open and honest account of purpose for our museums, within which the restitution debate could fall”. The culture then, she wrote in Museums Journal, was “one that is dominated by ownership and possession of collections, rather than the use to which those collections should be put for the public’s benefit”.

The emphasis is different now, and the BM’s apparently cavalier attitude to its collections might be a symptom of it: it’s on visitor experience rather than collection care. And this week National Museums Wales, Amgueddfa Cymru, has replaced its director with a chief executive whose job description is “providing inspiration, ambition, creativity, and strategic direction for the organisation”, not caring for collections.

This year Jones’s successor at the V&A, Tristram Hunt, called for a re-evaluation of the ’83 Act because the lack of mechanism to dispose of objects was hampering, among other things, the restitution issue that is with us again, in spades. Hunt’s view is supported by the director of the Institute of Art and Law Alexander Herman who told The Art Newspaper: “The need is only heightened in the post-pandemic world where national museums need to reinvent themselves, which is difficult to do with some of the antiquated restrictions in the existing legislation”.

The argument against has been that something that is not valued now and has therefore been disposed of might later be re-evaluated, too late. It’s an argument that isn’t heard much now. More potent is the one that says the ability to dispose isn’t just a matter of getting rid of too much stuff, and certainly not about flogging off, but it is about getting the stuff we have to the places where it can help tell a narrative, forgetting the word “possession” and thinking collectively.

The Museums Association, the custodian of museum ethics, has just produced new guidance on deaccessioning (https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/ethics/disposal. “The climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges that we face as a society and museums across the UK are working with their communities to support action towards net zero” says its director, Sharon Heal, in the guidance. 

“But we also have to do our bit within the museum space to break the cycle of endless accumulation and think more proactively and dynamically about our collections. This means undertaking active disposal and deciding where objects are best held. This toolkit will support museums to work with communities to make the best use of our rich and diverse collections.”

With the British Museum hugging its possessions to its breast in a building Osborne says needs £1bn spending on it and its chances of fundraising after the current shitstorm hovering close to zero, some urgent - and rational - rethinking on the rules of collecting, disposal and collection possession needs to be done.

And not just for the British Museum.


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