Museums have long enjoyed a reputation as highly trusted institutions, but this image has taken a battering lately after the fallout from the British Museum’s stolen objects crisis.
Since the scandal – which saw a member of staff fired last August in connection with the alleged theft of almost 2,000 antiquities – there has been an uncomfortable spotlight on an area of museum work that doesn’t usually attract a lot of public interest: documentation.
Journalists looking to uncover similar stories have cast their nets widely – and have not come away empty handed. Freedom of information requests have revealed that thousands of items are unaccounted for in institutions ranging from Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales to Imperial War Museums.
The most valuable object on the missing list so far is a £3m plaster-cast sculpture by Auguste Rodin, which went astray from Glasgow Museums’ collections after it was damaged during an exhibition in 1949.
Further reports suggest that around 1,700 items have gone missing from collections in England within the last 20 years, with museums citing incorrect data transfer, incomplete documentation or human error as the most common reasons for this. Most of the items are expected to be located.
Lack of understanding
These media revelations often fail to understand or acknowledge the complex nature of caring for museum collections, which can number millions of items accrued over the course of centuries.
Cataloguing was not standardised in the UK until the late 20th century, and the task of manually reviewing, fact-checking and digitising this huge backlog requires decades of staff time. There can’t be many other professions where modern-day employees are called to account for process failures that took place long before they were born.
Theft from collections by people who work in museums is, fortunately, rare
Institutions with missing objects say they expect most of the items to be recovered as they work through their collections. Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association (MA), has spoken out in response to what she describes as “misleading and damaging” coverage of the issue.
“It is unsurprising that, with collections amounting to tens of millions of items that have been collected over many decades, some items might be missing or unaccounted for,” she said in a statement responding to the media coverage.
Heal also highlighted how “systemic underfunding of the sector” has undermined the ability of institutions to do this work.
“Funding cuts, restructures and redundancies have led to a loss of expertise and a weakening of the normal systems of checks and balances, as well as slowing down digitisation and documentation programmes, and collections research,” she said.
And although the public might be forgiven for thinking curators across the country have a Rodin or two stashed away in the attic, Heal emphasised that “theft from collections by people who work in museums is, fortunately, incredibly rare”.
That said, this crisis is a moment of reckoning for the sector – an opportunity for museums to scrutinise weaknesses in their systems and to make changes for the better.
In the past few months, high-level discussions have taken place among sector bodies including the National Museum Directors’ Council, the UK Registrars Group, the Collections Trust and the MA.
There is a consensus that museums must take accountability for these failures. Although cuts have significantly hampered documentation efforts, some professionals privately acknowledge that this less glamorous side of museum work has never been prioritised in the way that it should, even in the good times.
People at the coalface are well aware of the importance of managing inventories, conducting regular audits and tackling the backlog, but making the case for more resources when there are so many other pressing needs is a different matter.
Senior managers and trustees may not regard it as a strategic priority, while funding bodies are often hesitant to support back-office work that has no direct or measurable public outcome.
One silver lining of the crisis is that it has highlighted the urgency of this issue across all organisational levels; about 300 senior-level staff and trustees attended recent briefings held by the Collections Trust, and the trust says there has been an increase in enquiries about the UK collections management standard, Spectrum.
There are also exciting developments afoot that could make a big difference to how museums use and benefit from documentation. Advancements in AI technology have the potential to revolutionise cataloguing and collections management.
Meanwhile, last November’s Museums Association Conference saw the launch of the Museum Data Service, a collaboration between Art UK, the Collections Trust and the University of Leicester that will pool millions of existing object records from UK institutions of all sizes, with the aim of transforming how museums share and work with their collections data.
Commitment to transparency
For its part, the British Museum has committed to transparency as it grapples with the aftermath of the scandal.
Along with the introduction of enhanced security measures, a public hotline and a web page detailing the missing items, interim director Mark Jones has spearheaded a project to digitise the institution’s entire collection and make it fully accessible online within the next five years (about half of the museum’s eight million objects are already digitised).
Enabling full public access to the museum’s catalogue could act as a safeguard against this kind of theft happening again, says the institution’s chair, George Osborne, who has described the alleged crime as an “inside job” that could have been carried out only by someone with specific knowledge of gaps in the inventory.
“If [the museum’s] trust is completely abused – as I think will become clear in the coming months, quite a lot of steps were taken to conceal this – it is hard to spot,” Osborne told a select committee hearing in October.
About 360 of the 2,000 missing items have now been either identified or returned to the museum. These will be displayed in a special free exhibition this year.
“We’ll tell the story about what happened to us, rather than leave it to others to tell,” Osborne announced to trustees at the museum’s recent annual dinner.
It’s certainly quite a story – but it must be hoped that the next time museum documentation hits the headlines, it will be for more positive reasons.
We need to prioritise clearing the decades-old inventory backlog
"Being accountable for museum objects is hard if you don’t know how many there should be. In the mid-1990s, the Museums and Galleries Commission’s target was for every museum to have a collection inventory by the year 2000. But many still don’t.
The reasons vary. Lack of funding is the key issue now, but too often governing bodies, managers and curators found better things to do in the good times. The UK’s Accreditation and Spectrum standards lead the world, but actions have not always matched policies and procedures.
For decades, the Registration (now Accreditation) scheme has required museums to have a plan to address any documentation backlogs. Some of those plans have clearly rolled forward longer than they should.
This requirement is based on Spectrum, revised in 2017 when we realised too many people were over-thinking the problem, confusing the task-and-finish sprint needed for a basic inventory with the open-ended process of cataloguing.
With museums’ stewardship of collections under the spotlight, now is the moment to sort the nation’s decades-old inventory backlog once and for all.
As a sector, we need to understand the size of the problem better and plan coordinated interventions to help hard-pressed museums whose leaders now realise this stuff is really important.
Above all, we need funding that does not require direct audience-facing outputs and impacts. The Museum Estate and Development Fund is a great precedent, tackling building maintenance backlogs.
Good governance, not to mention public trust in museums, demands an equivalent investment in documentation backlogs."