British Museum: From looter to looted

Image of the Benin bronzes
07 Sep 2023

From the perspective of Greece or Nigeria, the word irony hardly does justice to the sad spectacle unfolding at the British Museum, writes Barnaby Phillips

Art Fund awards £1m to boost inclusion in curatorial staff

06 Sep 2023

Art Fund has awarded £1m in grants for museums and galleries to improve inclusion in the workforce.

The funding comprises £800,000, split between 21 museums and galleries, in the latest round of its Reimagine Grants programme.

The charity says it was particularly interested in applications that responded to the findings and recommendations of its 2022 report on diversity in the curatorial workplace and that are aiming to make their organisations more inclusive.

Contemporary Visual Arts Network has been awarded the maximum £50,000 for a project in partnership with the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art that will offer a two-year professional development programme supporting artists and arts professionals from marginalised communities.

Other funded projects include volunteering opportunities and employment pathways for disabled and neurodivergent people at Buckinghamshire’s National Paralympic Heritage Centre and an action learning project developing new ways of working with underrepresented communities at Oriel Myrddin Gallery in Carmarthenshire.

A total of £7.3m has been awarded in Reimagine Grants since the first round in August 2020.

Art Fund’s £1m grant package also includes a ringfenced £200,000 to be awarded through Museum Development UK (MDUK) to support smaller museums retain and train staff.

MDUK will distribute the funds through a combination of grants and programmes, while investing £100,000 of their own through match funding.

The award giving will have an emphasis on curatorial posts and members of the workforce who work directly with collections including learning, engagement and conservation.

Museum floats homes development plan 'to safeguard future'

05 Sep 2023

A museum in Hampshire has submitted plans to build homes on its site in order to generate income to secure its future.

Bursledon Brickworks Museum, in Swanwick, wants permission for 12 homes to be built on its site which is home to historically significant industrial buildings including a brickmaking kiln, processing sheds, specialised enclosures, engine and machinery houses, along with a café and a museum, The Portsmouth News reports.

"Due to the listed nature of the Brickwork Museum, these buildings require essential repairs and restoration works to safeguard their future as heritage assets," an application put forward by the museum states.

"The Brickwork Museum will require substantial funding to carry these repairs and restoration works.

"The money required will come from a variety of sources but these alone cannot raise the required funds to carry out the works. 

"Therefore, the purpose of developing the land for residential dwellings is to enable the land to be sold to a developer in order to raise significant funds that can enable the works to the listed buildings to take place."

Museum returns Aboriginal artefacts

05 Sep 2023

Manchester Museum has announced a large-scale repatriation of artefacts from its collection.

The programme will see 174 cultural heritage items from its collection returned to the Aboriginal Anindilyakwa community of Australia’s Northern Territory.

Three women from the Aboriginal Anindilyakwa community have travelled to Manchester to receive the articles. Manchester Museum hopes that the repatriation process will help Anindilyakwa descendants connect with their heritage.

The artefacts include boomerangs, Ajamurnda (bark baskets), Enungkuwa (fishing spears), Errumungkwa (armbands), and a group of dolls made from shells.

Funding boost for arts and culture in Salford

31 Aug 2023

Salford City Council has set aside a total of £475,000 for arts, culture, and heritage with money from the UK government's Shared Prosperity Fund.

Under the scheme voluntary and community organisations will be able to bid for money for projects celebrating the city’s arts, culture and heritage.

The funds are being managed by Salford CVS and applications for grants of up to £10,000 are open until noon on Monday 9 October.

Salford City Council secured the funding after submitting proposals to Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which manages the fund in the city-region.

Councillor David Molyneux, Greater Manchester’s lead for Resources and Investment and leader of Wigan Council said: “Putting local authorities at the forefront of the funding allows those working at the heart of communities to engage with local people and ensure funds can be spent in a way to deliver maximum benefit."

Salford City Mayor, Paul Dennett, said: “We’re looking forward to bringing our proposals to life for the benefit of local people and visitors to our vibrant city.”

Scottish museum returns totem pole to Nisga'a nation

29 Aug 2023

A 163-year-old totem pole has been returned from Scotland to the Nisga’a nation in British Colombia in what is thought to be the first transfer of its kind from a UK institution.

The Nisga’a Lisims Government and National Museums Scotland (NMS) agreed last December that the 11-metre the pole would be returned after nearly 100 years in Scotland.

It was acquired for the Royal Museum of Scotland in 1929 by the Canadian curator and ethnographer, Marius Barbeau, but NMS now accepts that the individual(s) who “sold” it to him did not have the authority to do so on behalf of the Nisga’a Nation.

Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) said: “In Nisga’a culture, we believe that this pole is alive with the spirit of our ancestors.

"After nearly 100 years, we are finally able to bring our dear relative home to rest on Nisga’a lands."

The return of the pole is being described as “rematriation” in order to more closely align with Nisga’a matrilineal society.

The Scottish Government's External Affairs and Culture Secretary, Angus Robertson, said he "was pleased to have been able to provide the necessary ministerial consent to enable its return”.

Belsay Hall reopens following major conservation project

28 Aug 2023

Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens in Northumberland has reopened to the public after a major two-year conservation and revival project carried out by English Heritage.

Partially funded by a £3.4m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as support from Garfield Weston Foundation and the Foyle Foundation, the project included work to conserve the venue’s historic hall, castle and coach house and a rejuvenation of the property’s 30-acre gardens.

“The Belsay that visitors see today comprises three distinct but related elements: a medieval castle, a Greek-Revival country house, which superseded it as a family residence at the beginning of the 19th century, and a beautiful garden linking the two buildings,” said Mark Douglas, English Heritage’s Properties Curator.

The property, designed by Sir Charles Monk, is one of the earliest Greek Revival houses in Britain.

The restoration addressed problems including a leaking roof and gutters that had been causing damp issues for over two hundred years and the loss of much of the original planting material in the venue’s Grade I-listed gardens.

The original roof has now been replaced and the castle’s medieval stonework repaired. The gardens have been restored by landscape designer and gardener Dan Pearson, who planned a new scheme that maintained its historic character.

Pearson and his team planted more than 80,000 new plants, with 35,000 alone in the hall’s woodland area. The project also restored previously lost historic views on Crag Wood’s scenic walk.

Pearson’s “plantsmanship and painterly eye have helped to bring out the individual character of the extensive garden areas,” said John Watkins, English Heritage’s Head of Gardens and Landscapes.

The upgraded site includes a new projected animation and soundscape centring on the story of The Wildman, a medieval mythical figure which features on the coat of arms of the Middleton family, who owned Belsay for over 700 years.

It also includes new family-friendly spaces, a children’s woodland play-and-learn area with an outdoor classroom and a café with renewable energy and rainwater harvesting located in the historic coach house.

Heritage Fund invests in first anti-apartheid centre

23 Aug 2023

A new centre dedicated to the anti-apartheid movement is to be created after securing a £1.2m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The £3m project at Penton Street, a four-floor townhouse in Islington which is the former London headquarters of the African National Congress, will be called The Anti-Apartheid Legacy: Centre of Memory and Learning.

The building will be fully restored as part of the project to create a permanent exhibition exploring the history and legacy of the anti-apartheid movement, in particular the UK's central role in the struggle.

The building will have an accessible archive resource and study space. It will also create a programme of learning, volunteering and employment opportunities, and offer affordable workspaces to businesses, charities and community groups.

Professor Chris Mullard, Chair of the Liliesleaf Trust UK, which is responsible for the project, said it “enables a unique platform from which we will strive to reduce inequality and promote inclusivity through its programmes and events which empower as well as inform contemporary communities, and which work towards redressing longstanding imbalances in the perceptions and experience of UK’s multi-cultural heritage”.

The project has also been supported by the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund and Garfield Weston Foundation, as well as other funders.

A campaign has begun to raise the final funding required for the project.

National Gallery closed due to incident on roof

23 Aug 2023

The National Gallery in London had to be evacuated and closed to the public on Tuesday (22 September) due to an incident involving a man who climbed onto its roof.

As of Wednesday (23 September) morning, the incident was ongoing with a heavy police presence visible at the gallery.

Police described the man as "distressed". Social media footage showed him sitting and standing on the area above the Sainsbury Wing of the gallery.

On Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the National Gallery shared an update stating: "The incident continued throughout the night and part of following morning, with Trafalgar Square and the gallery remaining closed.

"At around 11.25am a man was detained under the mental health act and taken to hospital. The gallery opened to visitors at around 12pm"

Summer on the Square, an event scheduled to take place in Trafalgar Square across this week, reopened again on Wedenesday afternoon.

An investigation is now underway into how the man accessed the gallery roof.

'More than 1,500' artefacts stolen from British Museum

23 Aug 2023

The number of items allegedly taken from the British Museum’s collection by senior curator Peter Higgs is thought to exceed 1,500 and be worth tens of millions of pounds, according to an internal investigation launched this month.

Higgs was the museum’s curator of Greek collections, Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic period and was named last week by the Daily Telegraph and The Times as the prime suspect in the disappearance of artefacts from the collection.

He is thought to have sold many of the stolen objects on eBay over several years, beginning in 2016, often for fractions of their estimated value, the Art Newspaper reported.

A 2,000-year-old Roman object valued at £50,000 was allegedly sold for £40.

Higgs was dismissed by the museum earlier this year. He has not been arrested but the Metropolitan Police have confirmed they are investigating.

Christos Tsirogiannis, a UNESCO-affiliated expert in antiques trafficking, told The Economist the theft is “probably the worst case so far”. 

“No one expects that to happen in a museum”, he said.

The investigation comes at a time of fierce debate about the restitution of artefacts. The British Museum has long countered restitution claims by arguing it has a unique ability to conserve and preserve artefacts, pledging on its website “to ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited”.

The controversy over the stolen items has led to Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, questioning the credibility of the museum: “When such incidents occur, there is obviously a question of safety and integrity [around] all of the museum's exhibits”.

She added the furore “reinforces the permanent and just demand of our country for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles at the Acropolis Museum in Athens”.

Her comments were echoed by head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, Despina Koutsoumba, who told The Independent her colleagues were “worried” about how many Greek items are missing from the museum.

Their comments were rebuked by Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who is Chair of the British Museum All-Party Parliamentary Group. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme the “blatant opportunism of the Greeks” was “particularly damaging”.

Meanwhile, a museum spokesperson has said: “We won't be commenting on any details of the thefts while they're subject to a police investigation”.

Project to explore Shakespeare's 'hidden' women

23 Aug 2023

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) has announced the launch of a three year project exploring the role of women in creating and maintaining the playwright’s legacy over the centuries.

“Prompted by the 400th anniversary of the death of Anne Shakespeare (nee Hathaway) earlier in August, we are embarking on an ambitious, multi-year project that will explore the sometimes hidden, often ignored, erased or forgotten stories of the many women who have influenced, as well as secured Shakespeare’s legacy,” said Professor Charlotte Scott, the trust’s Director of Knowledge and Engagement.

The SBT has committed to ensuring all the activity will be devised and led by women and female-identifying people. 

The project will focus on the lived experiences of the women in Shakespeare’s life, including his mother Mary, his sister Joan, his daughters Susannah and Judith and the extended networks of friends, neighbours and country women who maintained those relations.

The trust, which is responsible for maintaining the family homes, documents and artefacts relating to Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon, will share stories and events for every family and an exhibition at Shakespeare’s New Place in Spring 2024. 

In 2025, the focus of the project will be the female gaze and the female characters who have contributed to Shakespeare’s place in theatrical history, including “lovers and Queens, witches, mothers, murderers, politicians and powerhouses”. 

The final year will centre on the women who made and continue to make Shakespeare famous, from actresses to artists, writers, readers and creatives who have brought his characters to life.

“We are approaching Shakespeare not as a single genius, but as the figurehead of a community and network of people who enabled and secured his place in the canon of western literature,” Scott said.

“He wrote at a time when society was highly patriarchal and socially stratified. However, his own life and much of his career was one which was ruled by women, from the monarch to his homelife.” 

Over half of galleries unaware of Martyn’s Law

23 Aug 2023

Research has revealed that 55% of UK galleries are unaware of Martyn’s Law, a new piece of legislation which requires them to consider the threat of terrorism and put mitigation measures in place.

The law was created in response to the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, in which the assailant and 22 concert-goers were killed.

It is named after Martyn Hett, one of the victims of the attack, and is designed to ensure public safety by reducing the risk from terrorist attacks at public venues.

Research commissioned by specialist heritage insurer Ecclesiastical found that although details of the draft Terrorism (Protection of Premises) Bill were published in May, more than half of galleries remained unaware of its requirements.
The survey of 100 gallery decision makers found that 80% feel their organisation needs more support to prepare for the legislation coming into force.

Faith Kitchen, customer segment director at Ecclesiastical Insurance said: “Ensuring the safety of arts and heritage venues is paramount. We encourage galleries to familiarise themselves with the concepts and requirements of the forthcoming legislation.”
The Protect UK website provides information, tools and guidance to help galleries evaluate and mitigate terrorism risks.

The legislation is currently being scrutinised by the Home Affairs Select Committee in draft form. It is expected to be passed in spring of 2024.

Additional funding to green Scotland’s museums

21 Aug 2023

The Scottish Government is to make more than £1m available to museums and galleries to help them achieve net zero emissions.

The Scottish Climate Engagement Fund, worth £550,000, aims to build understanding of the climate emergency and to mobilise climate action among communities.

Grants of between £50,000 and £100,000 will be awarded during 2023-24.

The funding is for public events, festivals and skills development. It will not support capital projects such as installing solar panels.

The deadline for applications is 1 September 2023.

The Scottish Government is also to give £500,000 to Museums Galleries Scotland towards running costs and resilience.

The money is intended to enable organisations across the country to reduce their capital costs and carry out crucial repairs and maintenance work.

“Given the current cost-of-living challenges and their impact on the ability of museums to run their services for the public, this £500,000 in funding will enable the museum sector to be more energy efficient,” said Culture Minister Christina McKelvie.

“In particular the fund will prioritise projects that will directly reduce carbon use or have a positive environmental impact.”

This work will contribute to achieving Scotland’s target of net zero emissions by 2045, she added.

“As well as encouraging the sector to be more sustainable, the aims of the fund align with our national priorities and will contribute to Scotland’s target of net zero emissions by 2045.”

CEO of Museums Galleries Scotland Lucy Casot said the additional government funding will “safeguard these spaces for years to come”.

British Museum to review security following artefacts theft

17 Aug 2023

The British Museum has said it will conduct an independent review of its security after items from its collection were found to be “missing, stolen or damaged”.

In a statement released yesterday [Wednesday 16 August], the museum confirmed it has dismissed a staff member over the loss of several artefacts, with a police investigation now underway.

The majority of items in question were small pieces kept in a storeroom, including gold jewellery and gems of semi- precious stones and glass, dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD.

None of the items had been on public display and were kept primarily for academic and research purposes.

The independent review into the museum’s security will be led by former trustee Sir Nigel Boardman and Lucy D’Orsi, Chief Constable of British Transport Police. 

The museum’s statement says the pair will make recommendations regarding future security arrangements at the museum and “kickstart - and support - a vigorous programme to recover the missing items”.

British Museum Chair George Osborne said the museum's trustees learned of the thefts “earlier this year”.

“Our priority is now threefold: first, to recover the stolen items; second, to find out what, if anything, could have been done to stop this; and third, to do whatever it takes, with investment in security and collection records, to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he added.

Director Hartwig Fischer said it was a “highly unusual incident”.

“The museum apologises for what has happened, but we have now brought an end to this – and we are determined to put things right. 

“We have already tightened our security arrangements and we are working alongside outside experts to complete a definitive account of what is missing, damaged and stolen. This will allow us to throw our efforts into the recovery of objects.”

National Gallery ranked best value museum in Europe

17 Aug 2023

A study looking at reviews, admissions fees, Instagram popularity and opening hours to determine which European museum is the best value has ranked the UK's National Gallery in first place.

The research, conducted by The Knowledge Academy, placed the National History Museum second. Both London museums hold a 4.5 star rating on Tripadvisor and offer free entry.

The Louvre in Paris was ranked third, while the British Museum, the other UK entry in the top 10, came sixth.

UK-based entries in the top 20 are the Victoria and Albert Museum (=11th), The Roman Baths in Bath (16th), Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh (19th) and the Churchill War Rooms (20th).

Glass museum reopens following £1m renovation

15 Aug 2023

A museum charting the history of glass production has reopened following a £1m refurbishment.

The World of Glass in St Helens celebrates the Merseyside town's "proud history" of glass production, executive director Pete Frost said.

Originally opened in 2000, the museum has been refurbished as part of wider investment in the town from the government's Town Deal Fund.

The museum is built alongside the town's Sankey canal and around a Grade II-listed tank house on a network of tunnels originally used for heat and airflow.

The refurbishment includes updated, interactive exhibits designed to add "a layer of hands-on engagement" for visitors.

As well as exhibits telling the story of glass making, the museum holds a collection of thousands of glass objects from around the world.

Curator Hannah Billinge said: "It is an important collection that is one of a kind."

Entry to the museum is free.

Museum and gallery visits remain 25% down on pre-pandemic

The interior of the National Gallery
14 Aug 2023

Fewer international tourists since the pandemic identified as one of the reasons why visitor levels for leading museums and galleries are yet to fully recover.

Glasgow Council considers £36m People’s Palace refurb

14 Aug 2023

A proposal to ‘restore, reimagine and enhance’ the 125-year-old People’s Palace and Winter Gardens claims structural damage is putting its collection at risk.

British Museum settles legal case with translator

10 Aug 2023

The British Museum has settled a court case after acknowledging it used the work of a translator without permission or payment and then wrongly removed it.

Vancouver-based writer, poet and translator Yilin Wang agreed to settle her copyright infringement claim against the museum for an undisclosed sum.

Wang will also be fully credited in all exhibition materials and future copies of the catalogue will include her contribution.

According to the Art Newspaper, Wang plans to donate 50% or more of the total settlement “to support translators of Sinophone poetry”. 

“I hope my donations can help fund a series of workshops with a focus on feminist, queer and decolonial approaches to translation, in honour of Qiu Jin,” Wang said.

As part of the settlement, the British Museum will be reviewing its permissions policy.

A statement from the institution says the review of its permission process will “ensure that there is a timely and robust methodology underpinning our clearance work and our crediting of contributors going forward”.

The museum says it will complete its review by the end of this year and will “implement appropriate policies and procedures to address any gaps identified in its review”.

The statement also acknowledges the museum does not currently have a policy for specifically addressing the clearance of translations, which Wang said was “surprising” for such a large institution.

“I hope that the British Museum follows through on their commitment to create a clearance process for translations in the future by the end of this year and to take concrete steps to ensure that the mistake does not happen again,” Wang added.

English Heritage launches £11m apprenticeship programme

A young man learning 'flint knapping' skills. An older man is showing him how to repair a flint wall
10 Aug 2023

The charity aims to train a new generation in vanishing heritage skills needed to preserve endangered historic properties, including flint-working, stone masonry and heritage brickwork.


Subscribe to Museums and heritage