Fix Cataloguing, Governance, Security & HR: Apart from that the British Museum is Fine, Review Finds

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The British Museum has published the much anticipated and heavily redacted, results of its internal review of the alleged theft of items of classical jewellery from its Greek and Roman collection. Launched by the British Museum Trustees, the review, by former Trustee Sir Nigel Boardman, the Chief Constable of the British Transport Police Lucy D’Orsi, and lawyer and judge Ian Karet has made a series of recommendations to the museum’s board of trustees covering most aspects of the museum’s activities from security and relations with staff, to higher level governance, and even the way board minutes are recorded.

The reviews also offers the most secure timeline yet describing the theft of artifacts from the museum collection which was made public in August 2023.

While not offering any detail, the report adds that at the same time a member of staff was dismissed by the British Museum.

That member of staff has been named in the media as the then Acting Head of Greek and Roman Antiquities Peter Higgs.

Mr Higgs was a senior curator with a thirty year career working with some of the highest profile artefacts in the British Museum’s collection, including curating an exhibition about the famous Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII and, ironically given the accusations he faces, acting as the museum’s face in the return of a statue looted from the Libyan city of Cyrene during the civil war which led to the downfall of President Muammar Gadaffi, which had been seized by customs officials at London’s Heathrow airport.

Mr Higgs son Greg denied his father had any involvement with the alleged disappearances, telling the Times newspaper,

“He’s lost his job and his reputation and I don’t think it was fair. It couldn’t have been [him]. I don’t think there is even anything missing as far as I’m aware.”

However, the missing object are much smaller and have nothing like the profile of a classical marble statue of Persephone, or artefacts relating to Queen Cleopatra.

The review states that of approximately 2000 damaged or missing items it recorded, some 1500 items are believed to be missing or stolen.

Of the rest, around 350 items have been damaged, for example by having gold mounts for
gems removed, possibly as scrap, while 140 items are described as having been damaged by tool marks

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But perhaps the most damning and embarrassing statistic is that, of the 1500 items believed to be either missing or stolen just 351 items have already been returned, while 300 further items are classified as having been “identified”. It is unclear precisely what this means, but one possibility is that objects have been tracked to sales outlets and are now with third parties.

In other words more than half of the objects believed missing or stolen are still unaccounted for, whereabouts unknown, and in the case of the items damaged to remove the scrap precious metals, most likely long since melted down and recycled.

The review team also confirm that the British Museum’s senior management were tipped off about the potential thefts in 2021 by Danish expert Dr Ittai Gradel, but that the Museum’s then senior management, Director Dr Hartwig Fischer and his deputy Dr Jonathan Williams botched the investigation.

Both have now paid the price of that failure with their jobs, Dr Fischer when the scandal became public in August and Dr Williams who had “stepped back” from his role at the same time, apparently going as a direct result of the publication of the review, although it is not clear whether he resigned, or was “resigned” by the board.

It is understandable that, faced with one of the worst museum scandals in decades, the Board of the British Museum would want to create a clean sheet for an incoming Director and Deputy Director. However, looking at the recommendations of the Security Review team it is a reasonable assumption that Dr Fischer and Dr Williams may not be the last to pass under the imposing classical pediment of the museum’s Bloomsbury home for the last time.

Over six sections and thirty six recommendations some of the conclusions of the team are jaw dropping, not least the first recommendation regarding what might seem the most elemental task for any museum.

The Review team recommend,

“The Museum should have a policy which defines what comprises its Collection.”

Moving on to cataloguing the collection and auditing its security, the Museum had already announced, including to the DCMS Select Committee in the House of Commons, that it was instituting a five year programme to catalogue the entire collection. Perhaps more interesting is the recommendation that

“Internal audit should increase to include more frequent and more extensive inventory checks
of the Collection, including of the unregistered collection.”


This seems to be a hint that the immediate problem, which was announced publicly in August, has its origins in this area of the collection hinting at a complacent attitude towards security and the lack of oversight and audit.

A further recommendation offers a hint that the Review team found evidence that all may not be well in terms of relationships between the Museum’s curators, the subject experts, and the Collections Care Team, the people who maintain the collection in the stores and galleries and that staff are not properly trained.

The Review team state in its view,

The Museum should review its Collection Care strategy to ensure it allocates responsibility for
the security of the Collection; removes potential areas of friction between curatorial staff and
the Collections Care team; and provides adequate training to Collections Care staff to handle
those parts of the Collection within their specific responsibility
.”

A further recommendation hints all may not be well in matters of staff relations, with the Review Team stating that in matters relating to auditing the collections the auditor should report,

“…the level of management co-operation [with the audit].”

Why say this if the Team found such co-operation was already routine and effective?

Of course issues of training often lead to discussions of staff numbers and departmental budgets and certainly poor pay and conditions, even at leading national museums and galleries are often mentioned in discussion of the sector.

The British Museum’s annual report and accounts for 2022/2023 states that the average pay of a member of staff was £29.5k. The National Average wage is £34,963 and in London where many of its staff need to live, £44,370.

The Review does not make any comment regarding these matters, leaving them for the Board to sort out.

Meanwhile, with regard to risk, the Review states,

“The Museum’s current risk register should be replaced with one that draws on best practice in
peer institutions.”


This begs the question why such a fundamental policy area does not already reflect such best practice?

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Is this an indicator of a sense of complacency, perhaps even exceptionalism, within the British Museum’s senior managers? A further recommendation suggests that maybe it does.

The Review team address the issue of Management and say this,

“Trustees and the Director should consider the size and composition of the Directorate with a
view to establishing a group in line with best practice and peer institutions to ensure capacity,
sufficient challenge and diversity of thought.”


On the face of it that is a suggestion that the existing structures operated by the British Museum may be unfit for purpose, complacent and even prone to group think.

The British Museum Collection Security Review Team have delivered what appears to be a robust report quickly, popping the ball firmly into the court of the Board of the Museum and in particular its highly political Chair George Osborne.

Ironically he is the man whose period as Chancellor of the Exchequer between 2010 and 2016 saw the imposition of Treasury driven “Austerity” on Britain’s publicly funded services and institutions including the British Museum, which lost 37% of its pubic funding between 2010 and the present.

Welcoming the results of the review Chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser, said,

“This is an important milestone towards restoring trust in a much-loved national institution.” adding,

“I welcome the British Museum’s commitment to implementing the Independent Collection Security Review’s recommendations in full, so that going forward the charity’s governance is appropriately robust for an organisation of this importance.”

Meanwhile, on behalf of the Board of Governors, Mr Osborne announced they accepted all thirty six recommendations, with some already actioned.

Mr Osborne concluded his comments in the press release by saying,

“Above all, we’re determined to emerge from this period a stronger, more open, and more
confident Museum that is fit for the future. Thanks to the hard work of the Review team we’re
now equipped to do just that.”


However, given the gaping holes in the British Museum’s capacity and practice which appear to have been revealed reading the substance of, and particularly between the lines of the Independent Collection Security Review the rest of the Museum sector, not to mention the museum’s public world wide, can be forgiven for thinking, that is all very well, now prove it.

STOP PRESS: As this article was about to be published it was announced that the British Museum has reached a sponsorship agreement which will see the Museum receive £50m over ten years from fossil fuel giant BP, as part of a major development plan

It is being reported that, as Mr Osborne takes forward both implementing the recommendations of the Security Review and the development plan with its controversial new sponsor, he will have to do so without the support of Deputy Chair of Governors, the broadcaster Muriel Grey, who, it has emerged, resigned from the board at the start of its November meeting where the new sponsorship deal with BP was adopted.

The British Museum states that her resignation is for “personal reasons”.

Almost the entire published minutes of the 27 November meeting consists of references to the risks to the collections and staff of the British Museum, which the BP deal would bring.

Ms Grey has not so far commented on the situation.

Another trustee, the classicist and broadcaster Dame Mary Beard, told the Times newspaper [£] that she opposed the BP deal, but abiding by collective responsibility, would remain on the board.

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