On Art

Behind the scenes at the museums

The exhibits missing from the globe’s galleries and museums

Things generally tend to move at a stately pace in the museum world but currently there is a frenetic air to proceedings. In Britain, the reported theft of some 2,000 items from the British Museum set in course a train of events that still has a long way to play out.

So far, one curator was dismissed earlier this year, although he professes his innocence, and the former director of the museum, Hartwig Fischer, brought forward his planned departure — or was not dissuaded from jumping — from the post he had held for seven years. The chair of trustees, George Osborne, has admitted the thefts were an “inside job” but has forborne from falling on his sword.

The laxity revealed by the thefts has led to renewed calls from interested parties around the world for the return of “their” objects. The line of argument, not a very persuasive one, being that if the museum can’t look after its treasures then they should be returned to their places of origin — the small matter of the difference between a pocketable ancient jewel and a slice of the Elgin Marbles being smuggled out of the museum under someone’s coat notwithstanding.

The thefts have led to some rapid reverse engineering at the museum. It has set up a webpage for the public to report any of the missing items they might come across but describes the types of objects to look out for in unhelpfully broad terms, such as rings, earrings and jewellery which “date from across antiquity, especially the Late Bronze Age (about fifteenth to eleventh century BC) and the Hellenistic and Roman periods”, that is objects from a 2,000-year span. It has also established a panel of 14 specialists to help identify likely stolen objects. What it hasn’t done is publish a record of what has been taken, largely because it doesn’t know.

Glasgow Museums have just realised that their plaster version of the Rodin sculpture The Burghers of Calais has been missing for nearly 75 years

In a horse and stable door scenario they have also been shamed into digitising the entire British Museum collection. Doing
so will require uploading 2.4 million records, a task that is projected to take five years at an estimated cost of £10 million that, says Osborne, the austerity Chancellor turned financial optimist, “we hope to raise privately”. The word “hope” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.

The British Museum is not the only institution with objects that have gone AWOL. The Glasgow Museums have just realised that their plaster version of the Rodin sculpture The Burghers of Calais has been missing for nearly 75 years. Valued at £3 million, it was last seen in 1949. It might be the most high-profile work to have disappeared but Glasgow Museums list 1,749 more, including a dolphin skull, a set of iron knuckledusters and the life-sized figure of a Japanese man.

Elsewhere, rather than trace missing items, some museums are trying to offload them. Deaccessioning is frowned on in this country, indeed the Museums Association Code of Ethics states that museums should “recognise the principle that collections should not normally be regarded as financially negotiable assets and that financially motivated disposal risks damaging public confidence in museums”.

There is wiggle room in the wording, so that, for example, in 2019 Leighton House Museum sold a Joseph Wright of Derby landscape in its collection for £300,000 (against an upper estimate of £150,000) to raise funds to strengthen its holdings.
Such a sum is nevertheless paltry in comparison to the funds that could be realised by deaccessioning elsewhere. For example, financial woes at the Langmatt Museum in Bern, Switzerland, have forced it to raid its collection of Impressionist works and put three Cézannes up for sale.

It is, according to its director, a “last resort to save the museum”, which needs $45 million to guarantee its future. The upper estimates of the Cézannes total $70 million, but the decision has nevertheless proved deeply contentious, with the head of the Swiss branch of the International Council of Museums deeming it “outrageous”. A swirl of legal threats hovers.

In America, where deaccessioning is more widely accepted, the venerable Art Institute of Chicago is selling a painting by Balthus that it has owned since 1964 in order to raise funds for new acquisitions. Solitaire, showing a woman playing patience, was painted in 1948 and carries a top estimate of $18 million. Little fuss has been made about its sale, not just because Balthus is a controversial figure thanks to his sexualised paintings of young girls, but because the institution has other examples of his work. The offloading, it says, falls squarely within its “mandate for continuous evaluation and improvement”.

Meanwhile, in New York, the American Museum of Natural History is setting out to correct history and has emptied 12 display cases of their human remains. That they were ever put on show in the first place was due, says the museum’s president, to researchers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who used them “to advance deeply flawed scientific agendas rooted in white supremacy” — namely the identification of physical differences that could reinforce models of racial hierarchy.

What happens to the remains now and where some might be returned to remain open questions. It seems that after centuries of acquisitiveness, museums are, intentionally or inadvertently, emptying.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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