Review urges British Museum to close any gaps in the registration of objects

13 Dec 2023 News

The British Museum, London

by coward_lion / Adobe

An independent review into the British Museum, following the discovery of thefts, has urged it to keep better records.

The museum was alerted to suspicions of thefts in 2021 by Ittai Gradel, and an investigation incorrectly concluded that there was no basis to the claims. 

Recommendations of the independent review have now been unanimously accepted by the trustee board, and it was revealed that the thefts took place over a “considerable period of time”.

It estimates there are 1,500 missing or stolen items, with more damaged. Around 350 items have had portions removed and around 140 have been damaged by tool marks.

“The 140 by definition cannot be retrieved because we already have them, and we believe the majority of the portions removed from the 350 are likely to be unrecoverable because they have probably been sold for scrap,” states the museum.

In August 2023, Hartwig Fischer stepped down from his position of director of the museum, with immediate effect. 

Mark Jones, new interim director of the museum, said: “This is a helpful set of recommendations, many of which we are already delivering on. No one can pretend this has been an easy period for the museum, but I have the utmost admiration for the commitment of the staff to building a stronger future for the museum we all care so deeply about.”  


The museum states it is limited in what it can say about the thefts themselves at this stage due to the ongoing police investigation.
A statement reads: “However, we can say that we believe the thefts took place over a considerable period of time – and that the total number of items damaged or missing is estimated to be around 2,000. A key target appears to have been unregistered items – mainly gems and jewellery – in the department of Greece and Rome.”
It adds: “Later that year, a spot check by internal audit revealed an item not in its proper location within the Greece and Rome strongroom.” This led to a wider audit which started in April 2022 which “subsequently revealed further evidence of missing objects”.
In December 2022, concerns arising from the audit were raised with senior management and the chair of the British Museum. 

The chair called in the police immediately, and they began an investigation – “at their request nothing was said publicly at that point”.
In August 2023, the museum announced the discovery of thefts, that a member of staff had been dismissed, and a review launched.

Review recommendations 

Following the discovery of thefts from the collection, the trustees instigated the review, which was led by Nigel Boardman, chief constable Lucy D’Orsi, and deputy high court judge Ian Karet. 

It recommends that the museum completes the documentation of its collection and closes any gaps in the registration of objects – which has already begun.

The review also includes a set of recommendations on audit and risk, governance and security. 

The security measures have been redacted, though the rest has been published on the museum’s website.
Over a third of the published recommendations are already underway or completed under the new leadership of Mark Jones, according to the museum.

This includes a plan to complete the documentation and digitisation of the entire collection within the next five years, which the museum states will eliminate any pockets of unregistered objects.
George Osborne, chair of the museum, said: “This review shows the British Museum is putting our own house in order, indeed we commissioned it because we were determined to learn the lessons of what went wrong. 
“The British Museum was the victim of thefts over a long period, and we apologise again that this was allowed to happen. The ongoing police investigation means the full report cannot be published today, but we have accepted the recommendations in full, and have started to recover hundreds of the stolen items. 
“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.”  

Charity Commission: ‘Restoring trust in a much-loved national institution’

The British Museum is an exempt charity that is regulated by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport as its principal regulator. 

Orlando Fraser, chair of the Charity Commission, commented: “This is an important milestone towards restoring trust in a much-loved national institution.

“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.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to include a quote from the Charity Commission. 

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