British Museum theft: Underfunding of UK sector has weakened safeguarding of collections, museums body says

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The UK Museums Association (MA) has issued a statement insisting that “inside job” thefts at museums are highly unusual in the wake of the thefts scandal engulfing the British Museum. The MA, an influential membership and advocacy group which represents more than 10,000 people, also says that lack of investment in the sector in the age of austerity has led to the collapse of safeguarding procedures.

“The recent theft of a substantial number of items from the British Museum has focused attention on the security of our collections and has led to speculation that theft by members of staff is a widespread but hidden problem in museums,” says the MA statement.

“Theft by members of public, as in any other sector, does happen, but ‘inside jobs’ are extremely unusual. Stealing from the collection goes against our ethical code which clearly states that museums workers should act in the public interest, take care of collections, and act with integrity,” it adds.

Art Recovery International, a London-based company that tracks missing items, posted on X (formerly Twitter) in response: “I can appreciate your support for museum workers but theft from insiders is not as ‘incredibly rare’ as you think.”

Meanwhile anonymous museum staff recently told The Guardian that theft from museums is common and nearly always an inside job, citing a former member of staff at a high-profile London museum who said that the appropriation of certain items is thought to be “fair game”.

The MA adds that procedures put in place to safeguard collections have been “undermined by the systemic underfunding of the sector over the past ten years”. Restructures and redundancies have led to a loss of expertise and a weakening of the normal systems of checks and balances that take place within institutions, says the association, which calls for more investment.

Peter Higgs, a senior curator of Greek and Roman art who was employed at the British Museum for 30 years, was identified in UK press reports as the person alleged to be responsible for stealing priceless artefacts from the museum’s collection. Higgs’s family has denied the allegations against him.

Recent reports state that the number of items taken is thought to total more than 1,500. A spokesperson for the British Museum told The Art Newspaper: “We won’t be commenting on any details of the thefts while they’re subject to a police investigation.”

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