British Museum has announced plans to digitize its entire collection in order to increase security and public access, as well as ward off calls for the repatriation of items.
The project will require 2.4 million records to upload or upgrade and is estimated to take five years to complete. The museum’s announcement on October 18 came after the news 2,000 items had been stolen from the institution by a former staff member, identified in news reports as former curator Peter Higgs. About 350 have been recovered so far, and last month the museum launched a public appeal for assistance.
“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,” interim director Mark Jones said in a press statement. “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.”
The museum also announced plans for “enhanced access” to its study rooms, where members of the public and researchers can see items from its collection by appointment. As a result of the thefts, the British Museum has changed its rules regarding access to its “strongrooms”, with nobody allowed to go into one on their own any more.
On the same day the British Museum announced its digitization initiative, Jones and board chairman George Osborne gave oral evidence to the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Their comments included an explanation of how the thefts occurred, policy changes made as a result, and how the museum will handle whistleblower complaints going forward.
They also gave more details about the British Museum’s strategy for digitizing its collection, estimated at a cost of £10 million ($12.1 million). “We are not asking the taxpayer or the Government for the money; we hope to raise it privately,” Osborne said.