British Museum was 'victim of inside job' as 'records altered' to hide thefts

The British Museum has announced plans to fully digitise its records to prevent further thefts. Credit: PA

The British Museum was the victim of an "inside job" when an estimated 2,000 artefacts were stolen over a period of around 20 years, its chair of trustees George Osborne has said.

He told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee this morning how “quite a lot of steps were taken to conceal" the thefts, adding: "A lot of records were altered and the like."

The former chancellor told MPs how 350 of the objects are in the process of being returned, with adding that the recovered items will be put on display.

In August the museum said a member of staff had been sacked after items, including gold jewellery, semi-precious stones and glass, dated from the 15th Century BC to the 19th Century AD had been taken from a storeroom.

A Metropolitan Police investigation is under way and a man was interviewed under caution on August 23, but no arrests have been made.

George Osborne told MPs how security at the museum has been tightened up. Credit: PA

During today's one-off session, Osborne told MPs: "We have changed our whistleblowing code, changed our policy on thefts … tightened up security on thefts.”

He added that recording objects is a “complicated task” following the suggestion that the institution did not have a complete catalogue of everything in its collection.

Adding that records had been changed to cover-up the thefts, which he said took place over a "20 to 25-year period".

He said: “If someone is entrusted by an organisation to look after something and they are the person removing those objects, that is hard for any organisation, and it was hard for the museum, where there is a trusting culture.”

The British Museum's interim director Sir Mark Jones announced steps to digitally upload or improve 2.4 million records to safeguard the collection.

“There is a task of dealing with unregistered objects, there are about a million of those," he told the panel.

Among items sought by the British Museum is a Greek gold chain necklace from 3rd century BC Cyprus. Credit: British Museum

“There are others tasks of taking the 300,000 objects that are registered but not digitised at all and digitising them, taking the 1.1 million objects which are digitised but have no photographs and making sure that they’re associated with a photograph. There are levels of activities here.” Sir Mark also suggested what is considered “good quality documentation” has changed and now involves digitisation, accessibility and photography.

The plans for increased digitisation means the British Museum will add pictures and more details about the history of items and any improvements made to them, along with making the archive more easily searchable by the public. The institution released images in September of classical Greek and Roman gems and jewellery – which are similar to the missing artefacts but not pictures of the absent items – to the public, which could lead to the recovery of more objects.

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