The British Museum must "own [its] mistakes" and not shy away from controversy, chair George Osborne has said in a speech at the institution’s annual dinner for trustees.
Acknowledging that 2023 has not been the “easiest of years” for the museum, Osborne pledged that it would be more open in addressing contentious issues such repatriation, as well as confronting its failures in dealing with the alleged thefts.
“I think too often we’ve thought: let’s keep quiet; if we don’t talk about things that are difficult, then no one else will,” he said.
“And course, it hasn’t worked. There is a big conversation happening about this museum, and other great museums like it – it’s just not taking place just in this building. We want that to change.”
Osborne said the museum needed to be upfront about the mistakes it had made in dealing with the alleged theft of around 2,000 objects from its collections, which was revealed in August after an art dealer first raised concerns in 2021.
“We can’t pretend it didn’t happen, or it doesn’t matter, or that some years ago we weren’t warned. It was our duty to look after these objects and we failed in that duty,” he said.
“That’s why we made news of the thefts public. It’s why we commissioned a far-reaching, independent review into what went wrong and how to fix it. It’s why we will publish its conclusions in the coming months. And it’s why I’ve apologised for what has happened.”
Osborne emphasised that the objects were “most likely taken by someone who worked here and we trusted”.
“I tell you, the people who feel the betrayal most keenly are the many hundreds of staff – who work so hard, and who in many cases have devoted their professional lives to this place,” he added.
Acknowledging that the dinner was being held in Deveen Hall, home to the Parthenon sculptures, Osborne spoke about the long-running ownership dispute over the marbles and said he remained committed to resolving the issue with Greece – although he appeared to indicate that a deal is less than certain.
Osborne said: “As trustees we look for a partnership with our Greek friends that requires no one to relinquish their claims, asks for no changes to laws which are not ours to write, but which finds a practical, pragmatic and rational way forward. We may well not succeed. But we think it’s worth trying.”
Osborne thanked interim director Mark Jones, who he said had come out of semi-retirement to lead the museum after getting a call “out of the blue” last August following the resignation of former director Hartwig Fischer.
In response to the recent crisis, Jones is spearheading a project to make the museum’s collection fully accessible online within five years.
“Under Mark’s leadership, we are now embarking on the huge task of not just documenting our whole collection – but doing so in a way that makes it more accessible, and gives it more global reach, than ever before," said Osborne.
“The simple answer to a security breach would have been to restrict access to our treasures – the right answer is to open it up.”
Osborne also announced further details of the Museum Masterplan, the ambitious redevelopment project that will transform how the museum presents its collections, expand display space for objects from African, the Americas and the Pacific, and put the Round Reading Room at the centre of the visit.
Architects and designers will be invited to pitch for the project next year.
Other capital projects being undertaken by the museum include the new Archaeological Research Collection (ARC) facility, due to open shortly in Berkshire, and a new energy centre that has just received government funding.
Osborne also announced artist Tracey Emin as the British Museum’s new Royal Academy-nominated trustee, replacing Grayson Perry. Emin is the first female artist to be nominated by the academy for the role.