What Are the 1,700 Items Missing From England’s Museums?

Freedom of information requests have revealed more details about absent artifacts from the last 20 years

Exterior of National Portrait Gallery in London
The National Portrait Gallery in London is missing 45 items, according to PA Media's investigation. No Swan So Fine via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

False mustaches. A drawing of Queen Victoria. A cannonball. Two model steam trains.

These are just some of the more than 1,700 objects missing from museums in England, reports PA Media’s Charlotte McLaughlin.

The United Kingdom news agency learned of the items after filing freedom of information requests, which asked for more details about missing objects from the past 20 years.

PA Media filed the requests after the British Museum revealed last summer that around 2,000 objects were missing or stolen from its collection. The museum fired at least one employee, a senior curator, in connection with the disappearances; its director also stepped down amid the controversy.

Additionally, an investigation by the London Times last October revealed that nearly 1,750 objects were missing from Scottish museums, including an Auguste Rodin sculpture worth an estimated $3.7 million. A BBC News investigation also found that more than 1,900 items were missing from Museum Wales.

The latest revelations add more detail to the growing picture of missing artifacts in the U.K. The National Portrait Gallery, for instance, has 45 “not located” items in its collection, per PA Media. They include an 1869 drawing of Queen Victoria and a negative image from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

A gallery spokesperson told the publication that the items were not stolen or missing, noting that the museum is fresh off a three-year renovation and still needs to conduct searches for the objects in question. All told, the absent items represent 0.02 percent of its entire collection.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is missing more than 180 pieces, including several false mustaches and a mousetrap, which a spokesperson says might be explained by a clerical oversight. 

“This does not mean these objects have been stolen or lost; it might mean, for example, that a catalog entry has not been updated after a collection move. Items are regularly recovered as a result of this process,” the spokesperson tells PA Media.

Staff at the Royal Museums Greenwich similarly explained that some of its 245 missing items could be “ghost entries” that exist due to human error or incorrect documentation, per the news agency.

The Imperial War Museum, meanwhile, can’t find more than 550 objects. Many of the lost military items—including a British officer’s private papers and a calendar with a Saddam Hussein photograph—predate the museum’s current collection management systems, according to a spokesperson.

The Natural History Museum has lost a variety of animal samples, including cells, genomic tissue and feathers. Some of these losses occurred because the samples were improperly preserved or maintained, such as a lack of refrigeration.

“We take the security of our collection very seriously, so over the last 20 years we’ve had just 23 instances of lost or missing items from a collection of 80 million, limited to small things like teeth, fish and frozen animal tissue,” a museum spokesperson tells PA Media. “We have robust security measures in place, which we regularly review.”

Museum officials say the recent reporting on missing objects doesn’t tell the whole story. Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, a U.K.-wide membership organization representing more than 1,500 institutions, said in a statement last year that media coverage had been “misleading and damaging to the reputation of museums.”

“It is unsurprising that, with collections amounting to tens of millions of items that have been collected over many decades, some items might be missing or unaccounted for,” she added.

Additionally, Heal argued that funding cuts have undermined museums’ ability to properly document and digitize their collections; restructuring and redundancies have also weakened museums’ “normal systems of checks and balances.”

“Looking to the future, we would like to see investment in museums—in the people who work in them and in collections and buildings—so that we can continue to safeguard and share collections with communities across the U.K.,” she said.

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