Since mid-August, the British Museum has been mired in an argument over the theft of as much as 2,000 objects from its collections. The theft is suspected to be an inside job that befell over a interval of 20 years. Alerted to the sale of alleged stolen objects in 2021, the museum didn’t take motion till earlier this yr.
This isn’t the primary time the Museum has come beneath hearth and its custodianship has been questioned (paywall). This article turns its consideration to some infamous incidents involving the curation of its assortment.
The Duveen scouring
There might be little doubt that essentially the most infamous of them is the Duveen scouring scandal, so-named after Joseph Duveen, an ultra-rich artwork supplier of doubtful ethics and benefactor of the British Museum. For a very long time, museum officers had argued that the Parthenon marbles had higher stay in Bloomsbury, as a result of the Greeks had been unable to take care of them. That argument was deserted someday after it was revealed that again within the late Nineteen Thirties the museum had scraped the marbles with abrasive instruments, destroying their historic floor, its pigments and traces of toolmarks.
Ancient Greek temples had been richly painted however remnants of color had been to not Duveen’s liking. A trustee of the British Museum described Duveen’s angle on the time:
‘Duveen lectured and harangued us, and talked essentially the most hopeless nonsense about cleansing previous artistic endeavors. I suppose he has destroyed extra previous masters by overcleaning than anyone else on this planet, and now he informed us that every one previous marbles ought to be completely cleaned – so completely that he would dip them into acid. Fancy – we listened patiently to those boastful follies …’
Duveen’s males got free entry to the museum and had been even allowed to provide orders to employees. Soon, in a misjudged try and whiten what remained of the initially polychrome ornament, they began to wash the marbles. The ‘cleansing’ lasted for fifteen months earlier than it was stopped in September 1938. An inner board of enquiry convened on the time got here to the conclusion that the ensuing injury ‘is clear and can’t be exaggerated’.
Tactical issues prevailed: it was essential to keep away from a blow to the museum’s fame, so it saved quiet and denied that something untoward had occurred. Documents associated to the affair turned, to all intends and functions, categorised. The marbles had been later positioned within the Duveen Gallery, named in honour of the person answerable for the injury to their historic floor.
The cleansing was saved a secret for 60 years till it was uncovered by the British historian William St. Clair in 1998. Previously in favour of the retention of the marbles within the British Museum, St. Clair turned one of the vocal proponents of their repatriation.
The Duveen scouring was not the one modification of the marbles to trigger consternation. A collection of letters printed in The Times as early as 1858 expressed concern about ‘scrubbing’ of the marbles and blamed the museum for ‘vandalism’. It is possible that, if these early warnings had been headed, the Duveen scandal might have been prevented.
Creative Commons/Wikimedia, CC BY
Other incidents have tarnished the British Museum’s fame. Documents launched beneath freedom of knowledge laws present that within the Nineteen Sixties and Nineteen Eighties members of the general public and a piece accident completely broken figures from the Parthenon’s pediments.
During a 1999 convention within the museum, a sandwich lunch was served within the Duveen Gallery, and the delegates had been inspired to the touch the traditional sculptures. Many amongst these current discovered the gesture so thoughtless that they walked out of the gallery. A journalist writing for The New York Times commented: ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, With Sandwiches’.
Another controversial incident was the 2014 secret mortgage of the pedimental statue of the river god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, at a time when Europe had imposed sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea. The mortgage was not introduced till the statue had been transferred to Russia.
An argument of a unique variety considerations contested objects within the museum’s assortment which are the item of repatriation requests. In distinction with different establishments, such because the V&A, the British Museum has been going through a refrain of restitution claims regarding very particular objects in its assortment. The Museum has staunchly refused to have interaction within the debate, though for the reason that starting of the yr it has been trying to persuade Greece to just accept a ‘mortgage’ of the Parthenon marbles, apparently contemplating this to rely as coming into the repatriation debate.
Of course, the Museum is certain by the 1963 British Museum Act, which prevents the museum from deaccessioning (disposing of) objects in its collections besides on restricted grounds, however that could be a dialogue for a unique article.
The museum’s present troubles
Now the British Museum is attempting to restore the dent to its fame, which comes at an inconvenient time when the museum is hoping to lift £1 billion for much-needed renovation work.
About half of the museum’s 8 million objects are uncatalogued and this lack of a list has definitely facilitated the thefts. The incontrovertible fact that it took so lengthy to find the thefts additionally raises the query of what else may need gone lacking with no hint.
Yet one can’t assist however marvel: Do the museum’s present woes produce other museum administrators fretting with anxiousness? How many museums have uncatalogued objects of their storerooms? When a museum such because the Louvre explains that its database has entries for nearly 500,000 artistic endeavors, is that its total assortment or only a proportion of its assortment? In a large number of instances, we merely don’t know.
The British Museum has but to announce the precise variety of stolen objects. But how does one know the precise variety of what has gone lacking with out a list? More difficult nonetheless, how does one determine the objects, not to mention show possession?
The secrecy is extremely uncommon. Sharing details about stolen objects helps determine and get well these objects. Interpol maintains an accessible database of stolen artworks exactly for that motive. But with a view to enter an object within the database, it must be ‘totally identifiable’. And the problem right here is that the museum might be nonetheless attempting to determine what has gone lacking. How do you totally determine an uncatalogued unphotographed object?
The secrecy may very well be attributed to a different trigger too. What if among the recognized stolen objects are contested objects which have been the item of restitution requests? For the time being, we are able to solely speculate.
Crisis as a possibility
Every disaster is a chance, and right here too there is a chance. After the resignation of the director Hartwig Fischer, an interim director, Mark Jones, has been appointed. The everlasting publish is up for grabs. Among these mooted for the museum’s prime job is Tristram Hunt, the Director of the V&A, who seems to have been behind the initiative to revise museum deaccessioning legal guidelines. The collection of the subsequent Museum Director is a vital step in shifting in direction of a contemporary British Museum that not solely renovates its galleries however rebuilds its picture in accordance with the brand new values of the twenty first century.
Catharine Titi ne travaille pas, ne conseille pas, ne possède pas de components, ne reçoit pas de fonds d'une organisation qui pourrait tirer revenue de cet article, et n'a déclaré aucune autre affiliation que son organisme de recherche.