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  • Camille Basso

In response to recent thefts, the British Museum wants to digitise its collections

The theft of 2,000 objects from the British Museum's collection by Chief Curator Peter Higgs has prompted the institution to take unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of its works. Access to the museum's study rooms will now be better supervised, and unaccompanied access to the vaults will be prohibited. In addition, the British Museum intends to digitise its entire collection, an operation that is expected to cost more than 11.5 million euros.

Photographie de la voute intérieure du British Museum
Photographie de la voute intérieure du British Museum

In a recent press release, the British Museum's Acting Director Mark Jones said, "After discovering that objects had been stolen from the collection, we took steps to improve security and are now confident that such theft can never happen again. I am convinced that the most important response to these thefts is to improve access, because the more a collection is known about - and the more it is used - the quicker absences are noticed."

One of the key measures in this security project is the digitisation of all the institution's objects, updating 2.4 million records. According to the British Museum, the operation is expected to take around five years to complete and cost around €11.5 million. George Osborne, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, said: "The British Museum is not asking the taxpayer or the government for this money; we hope to find it in the private sector. Following the announcement of the forthcoming digitisation of the museum's works, Mr Jones and Mr Osborne gave evidence to the British Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee. They also took the opportunity to detail the changes in security policy and the way in which the British Museum should deal with future complaints on the subject.

This unprecedented announcement comes in the immediate aftermath of the theft of 2,000 objects from the British Museum by Peter Higgs, the former chief curator of the Greco-Roman department. By the end of October, around 350 works had been recovered and the museum had appealed to the public to return the rest. Nevertheless, this exceptional breach in the institution's security is encouraging its management to take new measures to protect the various works it houses.

Secure access to rooms

At the same time as announcing the digitisation of the objects, the acting director of the British Museum also announced his intention to change the rules governing access to the institution's rooms. The study rooms - normally accessible by appointment - will benefit from better supervision. Similarly, the British Museum's vaults will no longer be open to visitors without a dedicated guide. According to Mr Osborne, digitising the collection will speed up the return and repatriation of stolen objects. In addition, it may encourage some people to consult the works virtually instead of visiting them in person.

However, Mr Osborne said that he was not "all that surprised" that objects from the British Museum had been stolen. Instead, he told a board committee that there had been a "complete breach of trust" with staff, records had been altered and "a lot of steps taken to cover up" the theft. He estimated that the thefts had been committed over a period of 20 to 25 years, and deplored the fact that the museum had not reacted before. Finally, Mr Osborne pointed out that Peter Higgs was obviously dismissed after his crime was discovered.

A request for restitution from Greece

Following the announcement of the thefts from the British Museum, the Greek Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, said that "the hospitality accorded to the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum has always been imperfect, incomplete and problematic". For his part, Mr Osborne said he had spoken to the Greek government about creating a "genuine partnership". "This would mean that objects from Greece would come here - objects that have potentially never left Greece before and have certainly never been seen in Greece - and that objects from the Parthenon collection could travel to Greece", he explained in a press release. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the year, the dispute over the Parthenon marbles has continued between the institution and the Greek government.


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