News | January 11, 2024

Protecting a Collection

Earlier this year, the British Museum imposed emergency security measures on its collection and launched an independent review of its protocols following news that 2,000 artefacts had been stolen by an employee, over a period of 30 years. For trustees of museums, the discovery raised some serious questions as to how they can best protect their collections. Similar concerns may arise for art galleries and, to some degree, owners of landed estates with art collections or other heritage assets, particularly if these are on public display for any part of the year.


Ultimate responsibility for directing a museum’s affairs usually lies with its trustees who have a duty to act in the museum’s best interests and ensure that it is carrying out its purposes for the public benefit. Museums are under a positive obligation to keep objects comprised in their collections within the repositories of the museum and so far as possible, to safeguard and preserve those items.

Action points

Trustees must carefully consider what action to take to safeguard their collections.

  • Record-keeping – collections should be catalogued on a digital database, with a description, item number and photographs of each artefact. Regular inventory checks must also be carried out. A significant challenge for the British Museum’s trustees has been identifying the stolen artefacts, as it reportedly had 2.4 million uncatalogued or partially catalogued items.
  • Insurance – trustees should ensure there is adequate insurance cover in place including in respect of objects in transit or on loan.
  • Security – although museums are generally aware of the need for well-designed security systems, the focus must not solely be on public-facing displays, but also the stored collections.
  • Policies and procedures – unfortunately, many thefts are committed by staff or volunteers who take advantage of having “hands on” access to a museum’s collection. There should be appropriate policies and procedures in place (such as disciplinary and whistleblowing policies) so that suspicions about misconduct can be raised and dealt with at the earliest opportunity.
  • Police involvement – if there are grounds to suspect that an employee may be committing theft (or any other criminal act), it may be necessary to notify the police and commence an investigation.

Museum trustees are facing increasing numbers of restitution claims. If they wish to defend these claims by arguing that they are uniquely positioned to protect these treasured artefacts, they should carefully consider what action they can take to prevent similar incidents and maintain public confidence.