A visitor to the British Museum walks past a display case containing Cypriot jewelry from around 1750 BCE on August 23, 2023 in London, England. Items including gold jewelry, semi-precious stones, and other objects were stolen from the institution. (photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Following a highly publicized string of thefts by a staff member, the British Museum in London announced it will digitize its collection in a bid to document its holdings and make them known to the public. The project will take an estimated five years, according to a press release shared by the museum today, Wednesday, October 18. The museum’s enormous collection includes at least 8 million objects, about 80,000 of which are on public display.

This summer, the institution revealed it had fired a longtime staff member amidst the revelation that gems and gold jewelry dating from the 15th century BCE to the 1800s had gone missing from a storage room. The museum’s board chair, George Osborne, told the BBC there were around 2,000 lost works. The institution has so far recovered around 350.

British news outlets reported that the dismissed employee in question was Peter Higgs, senior curator of Greek art, although the museum has not confirmed the former worker’s identity and Higgs’s relatives denied his involvement. The embarrassing incident led to the early resignation of then-Director Hartwig Fischer, who acknowledged fault on behalf of the museum for not responding adequately to a 2021 tip about the stolen objects, some of which had been uploaded to eBay.

Now, former Victoria and Albert Museum Director Mark Jones is leading the museum as its interim director. In late September, the institution announced it had launched a webpage and tip inbox and partnered with the Art Loss Register (which is available to buyers, sellers, and law enforcement officers who have specific details about an object and $95 to spare) to aid in the recovery of the stolen goods.

Jones stressed that the museum has tightened security in the past few months. However, he added, “the single most important response to the thefts is to increase access, because the better a collection is known — and the more it is used — the sooner any absences are noticed.” 

The interim director said that around half of the museum’s 2.4 million records are ready to go live, but the institution still needs to upload and update the remaining million. While the British Museum mobilizes to take its collection online, a host of countries worldwide want their physical artworks back for good: The news of the thefts further tarnished the reputation of the institution, which has come under fire for its repeated refusal to repatriate objects like the Parthenon Marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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