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British Museum to digitise collection to prevent more thefts

The British Museum has set out plans to fully digitise its entire collection.
The British Museum has set out plans to fully digitise its entire collection. Copyright Tim Ireland/AP
Copyright Tim Ireland/AP
By David MouriquandAgencies
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The British Museum, one of the most visited in the world, has been dealing with the aftermath of thefts which highlighted internal failings and led to the exit of its director.

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The British Museum has set out plans to fully digitise its entire collection.

The project, which is expected to take five years, aims to have its collection of roughly eight million objects accessible to anyone.

The move comes after thefts from its collection were announced earlier this year. 

In August, the British Museum revealed that objects dating from 1,500BC to the 19th century, and comprising jewellery made of gold and semi-precious stones, had been stolen or damaged.

After the scandal broke, the museum announced that it had sacked a member of staff, later revealed to be Peter Higgs, its curator of Mediterranean cultures. It emerged that expert antiquarians had warned the British Museum that items which matched those in its collection were appearing for sale on eBay, some for as little as £40 (€46), but these warnings were ignored.

The fall-out of the thefts saw its then-Director Hartwig Fischer resign, and the museum has since launched its own investigation into the thefts, as well as an appeal for the public’s help in their recovery.

“Following the discovery that objects have been stolen from the collection, we have taken steps to improve security and are now confident that a theft of this kind can never happen again,” stated Mark Jones, Interim Director of the British Museum.

“But we cannot and must not assume that the security of the collection, in a wider sense, can be achieved simply by locking everything away. It is my belief that 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.”

“So that’s why, rather than locking the collection away, we want to make it the most enjoyed, used and seen in the world,” he added.

George Osborne, Chair of Trustees, confirmed that the entire British Museum collection will be digitised to prevent another “inside job” after more than 1,000 artefacts were stolen.

Speaking to MPs of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee today (Wednesday 18 October), Osborne said: “Essentially we were the victims of an inside job, by someone, we believe, who over a long period of time was stealing from the museum and who the museum had put trust in. There are lots of lessons to be learned as a result of that.”

“The member of staff has been dismissed by us. The objects have started to be recovered. We have changed our whistleblowing code, changed our policy on thefts, changed our security in the stores,” he added.

He said Jones “has set out a compelling plan for how we can build on that to ensure the widest possible access and engagement with the collection – and I couldn’t be more supportive of his ambitions.”

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