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Care of the artefacts in the British Museum

The British Museum has often emphasised the point of how well cared for artefacts are in the British Museum compared to if they had been left in their native countries. Over a year ago, Chris Hastings at the Daily Telegraph used the Freedom of Information act to expose the fact that in the past 50 years, there had been various instances of accidental damage [1] to the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum by members of the public.
Now, following on from this original article (& in part prompted by discussions I had with him) Chris Hastings exposes a much greater level of disregard for the continued protection of artefacts within the British Museum. Interestingly, it seems that the curators at the museum are well aware of the problem of the public touching the artefacts & want to put a stop to it, but the management of the institution is unwilling to put up any form of additional barriers between the public & the exhibits.
Anyone who has ever visited the Parthenon or museums in Athens will know that staff there are typically far more vigilant than in Britain, regularly stopping people that they think are getting too close to the ancient artefacts.
The timing of this piece is interesting, as it comes the day before British Museum director Neil MacGregor is due to give evidence to a parliamentary Select Committee enquiry entitled Caring for our collections.

Daily Telegraph [2]

Vandals sack glories of ancient Egypt
By Chris Hastings, Arts and Media Editor
(Filed: 08/10/2006)

A pair of sniggering schoolboys grope the breasts of a 3,500-year-old bust of an Egyptian queen, while a sarcophagus dating from 1500BC is used as a makeshift rubbish bin and a climbing frame.

It sounds like a scene from Carry On Cleo, but it’s just another day at the British Museum.

The boorishness and schoolboy antics frequently witnessed in the museum, have forced curators to put the bulk of their precious Egyptian collection behind glass. Documents reveal that staff fear deteriorating public behaviour is putting exhibits at risk.

The papers also show that curators have pleaded in vain with management to put “Do Not Touch” signs in Gallery 4, which houses much of the Egyptian collection.

In a letter in February, Jeffrey Spencer, the deputy keeper of the collection, sympathises with an outraged member of the public who witnessed 17 inappropriate incidents on a single visit.

“All the curators of this department would agree with you that visitor behaviour has deteriorated steadily over the last 20 years,” Mr Spencer lamented. “Once it was accepted not to touch ancient objects — now everyone feels it is their right to do so. This department has requested that ‘Do Not Touch’ signs be placed in the gallery but this is a matter not under the control of the curators and it has not been implemented.

“When this gallery was last redesigned in 1980, public behaviour was better and many exhibits were shown free of glass, but it has been necessary to add more glass screens in front of the more vulnerable objects as time has passed.

“This is unfortunate for visibility but essential for long-term preservation. The visitor services staff in the gallery try to restrict touching of the objects, but this is one of the most crowded galleries in the museum and staff resources are being stretched.” The museum’s Egyptian collection, which is the largest outside Cairo, is the institution’s most popular section and the prime attraction for 90 per cent of the six million people who visit each year.

The museum prides itself on being one of the world’s richest cultural assets and the disclosure that artefacts are at risk will prove highly -embarrassing.

When another visitor was outraged to see litter strewn in the coffins, John Taylor, the assistant keeper of the Egyptian collection, sent an apologetic response in April last year.

“Unfortunately, with thousands of visitors passing through each day, litter sometimes accumulates quickly and the sarcophagi in Gallery 4 require frequent attention,” he wrote.

The increased reliance on glass will prove controversial and officials will come under pressure to explain why there are not more signs in some of the galleries warning visitors not to get too close to exhibits.

But anger about public behaviour is not confined to the Egyptian galleries.

Other papers reveal friction between staff members working in the neo-classical King’s Library, at the museum. One female member of staff complained to a warder about people touching sculptures and other treasures but his reaction left her bemused and angry. According to an email she sent to a senior colleague last year, the warder “pretty much told me to bog off as [the visitors] were allowed to touch everything in the King’s Library.” Her colleague admits to being “a bit worried” by the warder’s response.

Back at the Egyptian collection, some exhibits, including the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to unlocking Linear B script, have always been protected behind glass. Yet the popularity of such artefacts can have dire consequences for treasures placed nearby.

According to another internal email, the statue of a god in the shape of a baboon had to be removed to save it from damage caused by the Rosetta Stone crowds. Augusta McMahon, lecturer in archaeology at Cambridge University, said: “It is very sad the British Museum is having to do this. I became an archaeologist because of fantastic museum experiences I had as a child. It will separate the people from the artefacts and probably lessen their appreciation of the works.”

Daily Telegraph [3]

Battle of Bloomsbury
(Filed: 08/10/2006)

The British Museum’s Egyptian artefacts have witnessed some violent scenes. They have been fought over by the hoplites of Alexander the Great and the phalanxes of the Ptolemies; by Roman legions, Byzantine cataphracts, Ottoman janissaries, Mameluke slave-soldiers. They have survived bombardment by Napoleon’s artillery. But nothing has prepared them for the depredations of British schoolboys.

As we report, the exhibits are now habitually mauled in a way that would recently have been unthinkable. Our story highlights the dual vocation of a museum: on the one hand, to preserve remains for future generations; on the other, to bring the present generation into contact with past ones. If the two roles are in conflict, the former must surely prevail: superior stewardship, after all, is our chief justification for having carried off these foreign treasures in the first place.