Museums in Danger: How Collections are Under Attack

When news of thefts from the British Museum’s collections broke, it was followed by public outcry. How could something like this go unnoticed?

By now, the British museum has set up a specific website for the object retrieval and was told to keep better records by an independent review. While the investigations are ongoing, it seems that the thefts were an inside-job performed by a long-time curator at the museum.

Collections under attack

This is every director’s nightmare and one of the main advises security experts to museums always point to. Staff working at museums, particularly with the collections, is the most important in safeguarding the collections, and at the same time the largest threat. 
Stories of book pages being cut out of their bindings, or seemingly incomplete series can be told throughout the sector. Sometimes they are kept under cover, sometimes they are shared publicly. Both, in order to retrieve lost items and in the latter case also to alert others.

While collections are always possible subjects of theft, they face many different kinds of threats. Political interests, destruction e.g. by warfare, theft or looting, further human misconduct, natural disasters, and the climate crises are current attacks collections are facing. We’d like to focus this article on some of these threats and share stories of loss, crime, hope, and healing with you.

War and the loss of cultural heritage

Cultural heritage has always been a subject of wars. Whether during ancient conquests or in recent conflicts. While some aspects blended and fostered understanding, new identities, and traditions, others are subject to deliberate destruction. Thus, the destruction of heritage sites, looting and similar is a war crime.

The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations) has recorded damages to and the destruction of monuments, cultural heritage and archaeological sites in war regions over the past years e.g. in Syria, Ukraine or Gaza.

Destructions in Gaza

At the beginning of April 2024, UNESCO verified that 43 sites in Gaza had been damaged during the conflict following the attack by Hamas on Israel on 7 October 2023.

As of 8 April 2024, UNESCO has verified damage to 43 sites since 7 October 2023 – 10 religious sites, 24 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 2 depositories of movable cultural property, 3 monuments, 1 museum and 3 archeological sites.

UNESCO assessment of damage in Gaza

The organisation called on all involved parties to adhere to international law. This regards that “cultural property should not be targeted or used for military purposes, as it is considered civilian infrastructure.” In addition, UNESCO also emphasised that the humanitarian situation is of course paramount.

Sites of memory becoming sites of war

Just two days later, UNESCO also updated its verified damages to sites in Ukraine since 24 February 2024. Of the total of 351 damaged sites, 31 museums were attacked such as the Military Historical Museum in Chernihiv and several art museums, e.g. in Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv. Additionally, not only are the buildings being attacked, but there’s been reports of systematic plunder by Russian forces.

Page 18 from UNESCO report “Five Years of Conflict: The State of Cultural Heritage in the Ancient City of Aleppo” showing a three-year timeline of the destruction CC-BY SA UNESCO

Another well-known and ever-present victim of war are the sites in Syria. Since the civil war’s beginning in 2011 heritage sites have been shelled, looted or are part of occupations. There’s been reports that antiquities have entered a “black market” and are being traded for weapons, money or other. In 2018, UNESCO published an in-depth report documenting the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo. A sad testament to the cruelty of war.

Very early on, the international community responded to the dangers, cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq is and was exposed to. With archeologists documenting historic sites or even trying to bring objects to secure places before they could be taken by others. Technologic advancements support these efforts and aid in documentation and preservation to a large extent.

Saving cultural heritage comes in many shapes

There are different projects, approaches and concepts in documenting historic sites.
One builds from photography: Photogrammetry is the method that combines images from different angles to generate a 3D model. By now, even several mobile phones enable this approach without using additional software. In combination with GPS-data preserved with the photos, they enable a close-to accurate documentation that is very valuable for the preservation, documentation and last, but not least, the sector itself. 

But even the rather simple approach of “home-made photogrammetry” takes time that sometimes is not at hand or it is too late. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Tourist photos of the sixth century giant carvings out of sandstone cliffs, some dating back to 1965, aided in an approach to reconstruct the site. Together with the rubble from the explosive destruction they should support the anastomosis – the combination of remaining fragments with modern elements for a reconstruction. The project was mostly received positively but also met criticism among the citizens as is documented in this NPR article.

Since November 2021, following the return of the Taliban to power, the site is open for visitors but no restoration work is taking place. Additionally, it remains unclear if the site is being preserved.

Technology to the rescue? At least partially

Another project using 3D technology was initiated with the beginning of the civil war in Syria. “Scanning for Syria” has since supported rescue and preservation efforts at a larger scale. Even drawing from moulds of clay tablets created in the 1990s. The collaborative project of universities in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany received a European Heritage Europa Nostra Award in 2020.

Another joint-initiative, this time between ICOMOS and CyArk is Project Anqa that works with 360 degree panoramic cameras with a small foot print and quick recording to document dozens of sites in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East.

Stealing for the love of art, material or money?

In addition to an in-depth documentation, it is important to keep cultural objects themselves safe. Besides what we looked at above, this applies to subjects of theft, attack or natural disaster.

The story of Stéphane Breitwieser – sometimes named the world’s greatest art thief – shows how easy it can be to steal objects from exhibitions. Starting in 1995, he amassed a collection of over 200 art works worth an estimate of 1.4 billion USD until 2001. When convicted of the crimes, he claimed it had been due to his love for art and a trauma from his parent’s separation. He did indeed not sell any of the objects then. His more recent thefts in 2016 and 2018 were partially discovered because he tried to sell his loot.

In his autobiographic documentation of the first series of thefts, he reveals a number of security gaps in museums that could make “anyone” a thief given the opportunity. Additionally, he describes steps and observations to include when planning or performing a theft. These show, what kind of pitfalls even seemingly well-protected institutions can have. His book was published in French an German. He gained new attention following a 2019 article by GQ magazine, which provides an impressive insight into these aspects.

New developments in theft

While in the past, art thieves were mainly looking for the objects themselves, recent developments see a rise in heists for the material value as well as use of enormous force. Such as the 2017 theft of a 100-kilo gold coin estimated to be worth 4.3 million USD from Berlin’s Bode-Museum shows.

Even though the thieves were later caught and sentenced to between 3 and 4 and a half years in prison each, the remains of the coin are unknown. It was probably melted to be able to sell the gold itself. In this case, the investigations were relatively easy as the thieves performed the crime in a rather bumbling manner. Several incidents such as this made the rounds in Germany and elsewhere.

While security footage helped in documenting and investigating the crimes, it of course did not prevent them. Thus, museums have to adjust their systems. Furthermore, establishing security positions at the museum instead of outsourcing most of it can be taken into regard. All of it is a question of finances as well as the local circumstances. 

Disasters of different kinds

We can work on protecting our collections as good as possible. Still, there are things we simply cannot foresee. In September 2018, a massive fire at the National Museum of Brazil shocked the international community. The cause? An electrical short-circuit causing the air conditioning to overheat.

It was known that the building was in bad shape as finances for the upkeep had declined significantly. A missing sprinkler system aided the quick spread of the flames. Additionally, too little pressure in the close-by fire hydrants caused a large delay in reducing the fire’s effect.

Besides the external circumstances, it stands clear, the loss cannot be recovered. Over 90% of the 20 million items were destroyed.

The shocking events were met with great solidarity and efforts for recovery. While the objects engulfed by fire cannot be restored, their memory and data can. Which led to one of the first projects, in which Museum Studies students from the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro called for photographs from the museum and its collection taken by the public. Within the first hours over 14.000 photographs, videos and drawings were submitted from around the world.

What now?

These efforts are a signal of hope in times of crises. Technology and solidarity can aid us in capturing and preserving our histories in a different way. At the same time, steps to protect collections, the original sources of our knowledge, need to be taken now.

Our upcoming article will focus on these aspects and the international community that stands behind it. Experts, organizations and projects that support and inspire us to safeguard what is invaluable.

Read on