Opinion Articles

The price of everything and the value of nothing: museums, thefts and British society

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Is the most outrageous outcome of the alleged thefts from the British Museum really that they might have been listed on eBay for less than their market value? Is that really how little society thinks about the cultural collections that museums hold in trust on their behalf?

If you have read any of the, to date, nearly 10,000 English-language recycled news and gossip stories on the alleged thefts since the British Museum Board of Trustees made the admission publicly on 16 August 2023, you might come to this conclusion.

The vast majority of the comment and outrage reported in the press comes from antiquities dealers­—themselves part of the problem with how British society confuses public collections with the Antiques Roadshow.

On the other hand, museum colleagues and pundits joined the fever on social media to come up with their own Cleudo-style scenarios, or redoubled calls for repatriation from Greece to Benin to Wales, or went full conspiracy theory by accusing the entire sector of being feckless and “institutionally corrupt.”

Sector bodies and academics have rather feebly wagged their finger at the systemic reduction of public funding leading to a loss of curatorial infrastructure for cataloguing, security and research making it much easier for a slow-heist to take place.

Arguably since the Millennium, and the split with the British Library, the British Museum, institutionally, could not resist the urge to shift away from knowledge house to box office blockbuster cultural venue, pumping untold resources into brand awareness in order to compete.

They weren’t the only ones. The murky and permeable border between the public benefit and commercial aspects of museums stretches back to the late 1980s, none more so than the V&A’s ‘ace caff, with a nice museum attached’ advert which boasted, “Where else do they give you £100,000,000 worth of objets d'art free with every egg salad?”

The downgrading of the role and value of public museum collections in public life is what ultimately underlies the ease with which museums and their governing bodies—in this case the UK Government—can dispose of curatorial expertise and the structures designed to safeguard collections held in trust for the public. The two are inseparable.

In 2004, I commenced my doctoral research at the BM’s Department of Prehistory and Europe on their early medieval southern Italian jewellery. At the same time, I attended their seminars to hone my forensic object research. The collections and curatorial teams were my muses. I learned from contact with them as much as they learned from the findings I was making. My thesis is in the departmental library and also in the references of the object records I studied. In other words, there was a relationship based on mutual curiosity and generosity of sharing.

I’m just not sure this would happen now. Like in so many museums, experienced research-led curators and collections managers have become superfluous to requirements. In 2016, while sitting on the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee, I suggested that disposing of curatorial expertise should be raised in seriousness to the same level as financially-motivated disposal from permanent collections. The response was muted.

In November 2021, I wrote to the BM to highlight an error in one of their object records—a curatorial description of a 1940s Indian emerald ring that was apparently also involved in the alleged theft. I followed this up with a curator I knew, without success, a shrug of the shoulders, and suggestion that everyone is over-worked. Perhaps if my enquiry had been acted upon, the ring might have been located or not (the record says it is on display). The relationship between museums, researchers and the wider public is symbiotic and might have mitigated against such acts of abject neglect.

There is a very small group of us weeping right now. We have no interest whatsoever in the spurious financial value of museum objects or the scandal. We want to find the objects and we want to research them and then share that knowledge with the public.

Based on the arts press and media coverage alone it seems British society at large wants to know what the jewels are worth and if anyone famous owned them, while I want to know about the people who designed and made them, about the knowledge and skills they developed, about the materials used, about the cultures that they passed through, about how and why they ended up in a museum, and about what this means to us as a 21st-century globalised society.

I recognise this reading of British social attitudes does a huge disservice to the millions of museum visitors and researchers who do come to see and learn from public historic collections, and so perhaps we should take a closer look at the way the media, and museums themselves, choose to shape public opinion to suit their agendas to garner more clicks and more attention.

A major commitment all museums and their funders need to prioritise right now is to undertake more research, to do so more critically, and do it in public. The more people know about collections, the less likely they are to be so neglected, so invisible, and so vulnerable that they can be removed, apparently unnoticed, from some of our most trusted institutions.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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