The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum

Museum director dismissed pending police investigation

Gareth Harris, 16.03.2011
At least two items from British Empire and Commonwealth Museum believed to have been disposed without authorisation
The director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM), which closed its Bristol base in 2008 pending a relocation to London, has been dismissed from his post following allegations of the unauthorised disposal of objects from the collection.
 
Neil Cossons, chairman of the BECM board of trustees, said: “Gareth Griffiths has been dismissed as director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum for abuse of his position as director and the unauthorised disposal of museum objects. We're not in a position to make further comment because of impending police enquiries.”

Museums Journal understands that at least two items from the Commonwealth Institute collection, which was gifted to BECM early 2003, have been disposed of including a 19th-century Maori wooden panel, which was consigned to auction last September at the Dunbar Sloane auction house in New Zealand.

A spokesman for the auction house said: “[The panel] came to us from an overseas museum, who were the vendors. They believe they have correct title to the Maori panel.”

Another item believed to have gone on the open market is a bronze casting of an 1860s plaster maquette by pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, which depicts John Robert Godley, the founder of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Christchurch Art Gallery expressed an interest in acquiring the piece but later withdrew. But Cossons said that the object was in BECM’s possession. It is not known whether these items are linked to Griffiths’ dismissal.

A spokesman for the Commonwealth Education Trust, which represents the Commonwealth Institute collection, said: “We want to know what the state of the collection is and what is still at BECM.”

The trustees now intend to carry out an audit of the collection, which is currently in storage and includes over 553,000 items.
 
According to a 2006 prospectus of the archival collections, BECM houses considerable holdings relating to the South African War (1899-1902) as well as 200 items on loan from the Royal Collection (gifts presented to members of the Royal family on visits to Commonwealth countries).

The independent BECM, which opened in 2002, was the only permanent museum in the country that charted the story and legacy of Britain's empire.

It raised £8m to convert the Grade I listed Temple Meads railway station, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, into its home. English Heritage gave £150,000 towards the restoration.
 
“Museum trustees are conducting an option appraisal for the future,” said Cossons, who added that a London location is still an option with Southwark the preferred borough.

Gareth Griffiths could not be reached for comment.

Update
18.03.2011

Statement from McCloy Legal, solicitors, on behalf of Gareth Griffiths:

"Our client has never been interviewed by the police and any objects were disposed of with the knowledge and agreement of the Trustees and the receipts fully audited.

"Our client will now be making an application to an Employment Tribunal with regard to the terms of his employment and the Trustee’s treatment of him under his contract. Any suggestion that our client has profited from the disposal of the collection will be vigorously defended."

Comments

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Danielle
MA Member
07.05.2011, 13:59
But the issue remains... has this actually affected the 'trust' the public have in museum practices?

Will these allegations deter the public from avidly trusting Museum policies and procedures, or the actions of directors, museum staff, trustees and the like?

Unfortunatly we may not know the extent to which this will affect the BECM, until a move is confirmed... but by then, will all of this 'scandal' have blown away or merely brushed under the carpet?
Anonymous
16.03.2011, 16:06
I agree that we have to seriously address collecting policies; a temporary moratorium on acquisitions would in no way take away from what we have to offer the public, and would let us concentrate on looking after what we already have.