February 7, 2006

How safe are artefacts in any museum?

Posted at 1:23 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

The British Museum has often stated in the past that they feel that the Elgin Marbles are better looked after in London than they would be in Athens. Last year, the Daily Telegraph exposed records of damage that had occurred to the sculptures in the last half century. In the end, the fact that it is thought that something was historically better protected is of little use once an artefact is accidentally damaged – no matter where it is kept. The museum might obtain compensation from their insurers, but this doesn’t repar the broken piece.

BBC News

Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 17:22 GMT
Public risk to priceless pieces
By James Clarke
BBC News, England

A man who tripped over his shoelace and smashed two priceless Chinese vases says he has been asked not to return to the museum where it happened.

But the risk of accidental damage is a chance museums and galleries have to take, according to a number of experts.

The Museums Association and the British Museum both told BBC News the risk of an exhibit being damaged or destroyed has to be balanced against the need to have it on display for public enjoyment.

However Nick Flynn, who broke the vases at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in January, said on Monday he was surprised that such prized possessions were “just lying on a window sill”.

“I snagged my shoelace, missed the step and crash, bang, wallop, there were a million pieces of high quality Qing ceramics lying around underneath me,” he said.

Helen Wilkinson, policy officer of the Museums Association, said: “It’s fairly rare for anything to happen on such a spectacular scale.

“Low level damage happens all the time but for anything to be destroyed like this is rare.

“When museums put things on open display they accept they are making it open to damage. It’s a case of deciding how much risk is acceptable.

“Old photographs or old textiles are very light sensitive and having them out on display can damage them, but what’s the point of having these things if nobody ever sees them?”

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s director, Duncan Robinson, said staff were evaluating the damage to the Qing vases, which date from the late 17th or early 18th Century, to see whether they could be repaired.

After the breakage he said it was “a most unfortunate and regrettable accident” but has since written to Mr Flynn asking him not to return in the near future.

The smashed vases were not the first museum exhibits to be badly damaged in the line of work.

In 2001 a glass sculpture by US artist Dale Chihuly worth £35,000 was accidentally smashed by a workman at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

And in 2003 archaeologists had to restore a piece of 1200-year-old fossilised human excrement which was broken into three pieces during a school trip to the Archaeological Resource Centre in York.

But not all museum breakages are accidental – in 1987 a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, was shot with a gun at the National Gallery in London, taking two years to restore.

In 2004, the Israeli ambassador to Sweden vandalised a work of art depicting a Palestinian suicide bomber in Stockholm’s Museum of Antiquities.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum, visited by nearly five million people in 2004, said: “Obviously museums have to make a judgement between securing items and having them on display for the public.

“The minute you let people into a museum you are raising the risk.”

Security in museums tends to centre more around prevention of theft than prevention of accidents.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimated in 2005 that artworks worth about £4.5bn are stolen around the world each year, though the Museum Security Network says museums are the victims of only 15% of art robberies – the rest being from private collectors.

But high-profile robberies such as that of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which was taken from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, in 2004, have raised the issue of the need for security in museums and galleries.

But it is still not always standard practice for museum exhibits to be insured.

As John Oyaas, managing director of Oslo Forsikring, the Munch Museum’s insurers, said after the theft there: “The focus is on other issues than insuring them. To a certain extent this is common practice because these items aren’t replaceable.”

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