December 22, 2002

How the British Museum fails to look after artefacts in its collection

Posted at 8:25 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

the British Museum has in the past, often made a point about how artefacts in their collection are looked after far better than they would have been in their original countries, such as Athens. stories of lost artefacts & damaged artefacts, along with secret repairs by staff, fail to inspire confidence in this worldview.

The Times

December 22, 2002
Breakages and bungling at British Museum
Will Iredale and Jonathan Calvert

PRICELESS artefacts from ancient Greece and Rome are being mislaid, broken and poorly protected in the cash-strapped British Museum, a Sunday Times investigation has found.

Chaotic scenes at the museum — custodian of some of the world’s greatest antiquities — were witnessed by an undercover reporter posing as a work experience trainee.

During his three weeks in the museum’s department of Greek and Roman antiquities he found that:

  • Pieces from the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, were among hundreds of artefacts that had gone missing in storerooms.
  • Two-thousand-year-old pots and glass artefacts were accidentally broken. Some staff secretly glued smashed items back together so that the museum authorities would not know.
  • Security was so lax that the reporter was able to walk out of the museum carrying the foot of a 3rd-century BC Greek statue, valued at £20,000, without being noticed.

The British Museum — home of the Elgin marbles and the Rosetta stone — holds for the nation collections from around the world covering 10,000 years of human history. A key tenet of its argument for keeping the Elgin marbles rather than return them to Greece is the quality of its care. The museum’s collections are housed, says its website, “in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited”.

For the 4.8m people who visit the museum each year, such a statement may be reassuring. But beneath the calm exterior the museum is in trouble, as are its collections of antiquities. When the museum realised the depth of its financial crisis earlier this year — predicting a loss of £5m by 2004 — the Treasury blocked a bail-out because it did not wish to reward bad management.

Over the past 10 years the museum’s government grants — which now total £36m a year — have declined by 30% in real terms. A third of its galleries are now closed at any one time, more than 150 of the 1,100 employees face redundancy and last summer the staff called their first strike.

“All the world’s big museums have their problems, but the British Museum has been particularly badly run over the years. It is such a shame because it is a national treasure,” said one insider.

When a Sunday Times reporter applied for work experience at the museum, he was taken on without any checks on his references. But, as he was soon to find, security is not a high priority. It was not just that the galleries are only sparsely guarded by a handful of security personnel but also that few have closed-circuit television cameras, despite calls for their introduction after a small Greek head worth £25,000 was stolen last summer.

There were no cameras in the Greek and Roman department where the reporter began work last month. On his first day he was left alone in a vault full of 2,000-year-old objects.

To test security he smuggled a 3rd-century BC Greek marble foot out of the museum, walking through the main hall and security before returning unchallenged. But far from beefing up security, this is one area where the museum is looking to make cuts.

The lack of money has also brought disillusionment among staff. Curators with years of experience get as little as £12,000 a year and many complain they cannot afford to live in London. Some museum assistants have to take second jobs. One appeared to have given up, spending much of the day reading a book on the Rolling Stones.

The stocktaking — a crucial job in an institution that contains artefacts worth hundreds of millions of pounds in its vaults — was undertaken by part-time volunteers. The reporter worked alongside one who expressed his frustration that hundreds of pieces appeared to have been mislaid.

Probably the most significant losses were parts of the 2,358- year-old Temple of Artemis, which was built at the time of Alexander the Great. Some of the marble artefacts — from fragments of pillars to pieces of statues — were last catalogued a century ago.

Dr Peter Higgs, one of the curators, said he was confident that they would be found but admitted: “It’s chaos down here.”

Indeed, the room where many of the classical treasures were stored was cramped and unsuitable, with Roman and Greek statues standing under a large red water pipe. According to Higgs, any leak could be a catastrophe, damaging artefacts worth millions.

There is also concern about the location of artefacts in some of the galleries. Sculptures from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, another of the Seven Wonders of the World, are situated in a gallery that is sometimes used as a kitchen for corporate guests.

Such corporate events are a financial lifeline, but they are not without their dangers. Tipsy partygoers carry hot food and wine near works of art. One museum assistant said: “We have functions in the sculpture rooms, which is deadly because these people just want to get drunk in nice surroundings.”

One big donor threatened to withdraw her funding from the museum when she was told that she could not drink red wine in one of the galleries during a party.

At another function, a catering trolley rammed into a glass case and damaged a valuable artefact. Although the incident happened five years ago, the artefact is still being repaired.

Downstairs in the vaults there are more breakages. The staff want to use a laser machine favoured by other top museums to clean objects without touching them. But it will cost too much money.

One assistant said glass vases dating from the 3rd-century BC were often broken while work was being carried out on them. “You either admit to it or you go down to ceramics conservation and ask them to do (fix) it for you on the sly. Most of the curators have a little tube of glue with them and try to do it themselves. Once I was mounting two glass vases on perspex and they shattered when I was trying to put a clamp on them.”

Even Higgs told the reporter: “I have had a Greek marble face crumble in my hand. It is a horrible feeling as you have to try to catch all the bits.”

Last year a visiting academic, who was supposed to be supervised, broke five ancient Greek terracotta carvings in less than an hour. “He just picked them up and they broke,” an assistant said.

Last Monday the department of Greek and Roman antiquities was due to get £260,000 to refurbish and reopen some of its galleries, but that morning the museum’s accountants told staff that the money had been diverted elsewhere.

The lack of funds means that gallery 22 — containing many of the best Greek and Roman works — will remain shut in the afternoons.

“It is a real shame,” said a curator, “but it is out of our hands.”

The museum said yesterday that it was addressing concerns over damage, theft, staffing levels, surveillance and inventory checks in a security review.

“All museums open to the public have to balance constantly the right of public access with the safety of the objects and their vulnerability to wilful damage or theft,” said a spokesman.

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1 Comment »

  1. Colin Smith said,

    12.09.21 at 11:19 pm

    I have visited the British Museum a number of times during my lifetime, and I have always THOUGHT that the museum really did respect all the items in it’s collections. This article has really put a dampener on that thought and should be ashamed of it’s apparent lack of such respect. The museum is as stated, a museum, and NOT a Pub in ancient surrounds. There should be NO parties and alcohol drinking sessions held anywhere near exhibits or collections where damage may be caused.
    As for the curators, I would hope it only a very small minority who are disrespectful of the museum’s exhibits and artifacts. Sack any who are not.

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