How not to run a museum

December 10 2012

Image of How not to run a museum

Picture: Guardian/Christie's

The failure of the British Empire Museum in Bristol is a textbook example in how not to go about running a museum. It closed, having run out of money, in 2008, but I went shortly after it opened in 2002. I don't remember much about it, except that it was empty. It seemed clear to me then that it would never be able to survive in Bristol - museums that tell a national story need to be in London.

Now, however, the museum's history has taken a farcical twist with the news that many items lent to the museum have gone missing. Most oddly of all, one of them was sold at Christie's, despite the lender having asked for it back. From The Guardian:

Almost 150 artefacts lent to a museum set up to tell the story of Britain's colonial past may be missing, it has emerged, with some of them having been sold without their owners' permission.

Trustees of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, which has now closed, are in talks with about six of the owners about compensation.

Among them is Lord Caldecote, who said he was shocked to find that a 19th-century maritime painting his family had lent to the museum had been sold at auction. [...]

An investigation by BBC's Inside Out West programme, scheduled to be broadcast on Monday, claims that 144 objects belonging to eight lenders remain missing. They include the oil painting of an East India Company ship, Dunira, by the sailor-turned-artist Thomas Buttersworth.

Caldecote told the Guardian that his late father, an engineer and industrialist, had lent the painting to the museum. After his father's death, he asked for the painting to be returned.

"I decided I would like the picture back. It turned out the museum had sold the picture through Christie's. I don't suppose we'll be able to get it back again."

Caldecote said the picture had sentimental value because an ancestor had captained the ship, part of the East India Company's fleet, and it had been a gift to him. "It was a shock when I found out the painting had gone," he said.

The painting was sold by Christie's to the government of Madeira for £61,250 in 2008. The island can be seen in the background of the picture. Neither Christie's nor the Madeirans realised that there was any issue with the ownership of the painting.

There is an ongoing dispute between the board of trustees of the museum and its former director, Gareth Griffiths, over missing artefacts. There is no suggestion that anyone has made personal profit from any sales.

The board has criticised Griffiths but he insists the care and security of the collection was the trustees' responsibility. He said: "I never benefited from any sales of material and will regard any such inference as actionable."

(Is it actionable to suggest incompetence though? Just askin'...) The story of missing items from the museum has been running for some time now, and I find it hard to believe that nobody has been held responsible. According to the Museums Journal, other things have been sold too, and Mr Griffiths was dismissed for this very reason:

The director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM), which closed its Bristol base in 2008 pending a relocation to London, has been dismissed from his post following allegations of the unauthorised disposal of objects from the collection. 

 Neil Cossons, chairman of the BECM board of trustees, said: “Gareth Griffiths has been dismissed as director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum for abuse of his position as director and the unauthorised disposal of museum objects. We're not in a position to make further comment because of impending police enquiries.” 

Museums Journal understands that at least two items from the Commonwealth Institute collection, which was gifted to BECM early 2003, have been disposed of including a 19th-century Maori wooden panel, which was consigned to auction last September at the Dunbar Sloane auction house in New Zealand. 

A spokesman for the auction house said: “[The panel] came to us from an overseas museum, who were the vendors. They believe they have correct title to the Maori panel.”

Another item believed to have gone on the open market is a bronze casting of an 1860s plaster maquette by pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, which depicts John Robert Godley, the founder of Canterbury in New Zealand. 

Interestingly, when Christie's sold Lord Caldecote's marine picture in 2008 there was no provenance listed, and no mention of the recent museum loan. The picture was listed with a special vat consideration attached to it, which often suggests it has been consigned by a company or a dealer. It would be interesting to know how thoroughly Christie's checked the picture's history. I can't quite understand why the police are not more involved in all this. Lord Caldecote's picture has effectively been stolen from him.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.