The British Museum: controversies and crises


The British Museum, whose director Hartwig Fischer resigned on Friday, has gone through a series of controversies and crises over the past decades.

Here are some of the most spectacular:

– Lost Greek marbles –

Perhaps the British Museum’s most high-profile controversy has been over Greece’s decades-long claim for the return of the 5th-century BCE Parthenon marbles.

The fight was famously launched by the late Melina Mercouri, the celebrated actress who also served as culture minister, and has been taken up, unsuccessfully by successive Greek governments.

The museum’s decision to loan the works to Russia’s Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg in 2014 rubbed salt in Greece’s wound.

– Oops, cleaned with wire brushes –

Greece intensified its campaign after in 1999 it accused British curators of causing irreparable damage to the artefacts in the 1930s by trying to clean their marble surfaces with wire brushes.

Museum Curator at the time Ian Jenkins said 40 percent of the marbles had been “affected” by the cleaning process.

– Sold on the cheap –

The British Museum has refused to return any of its famed collection of Benin bronzes, sacred sculptures and carvings removed from the former kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria in 1897 during the colonial era.

However, pressure on the Museum increased in 2002 when it admitted to selling 30 pieces of the bronze over the years to private individuals, some for under £100 pounds each.

– Flat broke –

In the late 1990s, as subsidies from the government and the National Library moved out, the Museum found itself with a £160-million hole.

It turned to private investors and also to the National Lottery, but that was not enough.

It eventually dropped plans to impose a five-pound entrance fee, with the help in 1998 of a million pound subsidy from the new Labour government.

– Closed for strike –

On June 17, 2002, the Museum closed its doors for a day due to a strike, the first time in its 249 years of existence.

More than four fifths of its 750 employees voted to strike against a rescue plan under which spending would be slashed by £6.5 million pounds and 150 jobs cut.

– Greek statue stolen –

In the summer of 2002 a burglar took advantage of the lack of a security guard to make off with a 2,500-year- old Greek statue.

The 12-centimetre-high statue of a head, was bought by the Museum in 1922 and its estimated worth was £25,000.

The theft highlighted the underfunded Museum’s security concerns.

– Chinese jewels snatched –

In October 2004 thieves stole a valuable collection of ancient Chinese jewellery and artefacts from the Museum.

The theft took place while the museum was open to the public, with around 15 Chinese items such as hairpins and fingernail guards dating from the 12th- to the 16th-century taken.

Police said it was possible that the items were stolen to order for a private collector. — Agence France-Presse

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