The British Museum has started its search for a new director to replace former director Hartwig Fischer, who resigned along with his deputy last August following 1,500 alleged thefts of jewels and other treasures by curators over the past 30 years.
Whoever steps up to lead the world’s third most-visited museum will face “significant challenges,” the job listing states. These include repairing the museum’s reputation and staff morale after the theft scandal, digitizing its entire collection in five years, and dealing with renewed calls for the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles and Benin Bronzes, which many consider stolen from their countries of origin.
Poor catalog maintenance and ignored warnings enabled museum thefts
As much as half of the British Museum’s artifacts were never fully cataloged — a weakness shared by other major cultural institutions that makes them ripe for exploitation, ArtNet reported. Museums suffer from a general lack of funding and a tendency to focus on “blockbuster” exhibitions at the expense of tedious activities such as cataloging, the publication argued. But the sheer size of modern museum collections poses a conundrum for how to keep track of everything, and even precious gems can easily become a “needle in a haystack.”
“If it takes just one hour to identify, handle, photograph, and digitize a collection piece for cataloging, and you have 8 million pieces, it would take a team of four 685 years to complete the catalog if they work non-stop, eight hours a days, seven days per week,” art theft expert Anthony Amore wrote on X. The British Museum was undoubtedly slow to act, however — senior museum officials ignored warnings by a Dutch antiquities dealer that stolen jewels were turning up on eBay, and the dealer accused the former director of “sweeping it all under the carpet,” the BBC reported.
Countries have called for the repatriation of certain artifacts
The theft scandal underscored the British Museum’s inability to care for its artifacts and intensified calls to return objects in its collection stolen under colonial rule. However, British lawmakers have punted responsibility to the museum’s trustees, saying that the items are “integral” to its mission of showcasing world history.
Critics have also pointed to how the institution glossed over the dark history of some of its collection. For instance, the British Museum rarely references wars and colonization in descriptions for some 73,000 African objects. And human rights advocates and culture ministers have noted that the majority of the museum’s “loot” is not even on public display. “Museums were definitely devices that helped to shape colonialism and stories of conquests and the legitimizing of the conquests,” the director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa told Al Jazeera.