The other day I was met with a lunchtime read of the dreariest kind: Museum break-in, objects of great historical value stolen, said the headline in my news feed. Consider the picture below if you've never been to Bergen. It is the facade of the Bergen University Museum, specifically the Cultural History Collections, or The Historical Museum as they call themselves these days. Knowing the museum world, cold sweat struck me as I realized the gravity of the situation. After all, I live in Bergen and work for another museum group in the same town. I send tourists their way with warm endorsements, knowing they will have a great experience.
I'm sure we all hoped for minimum losses. That we were up against a clumsily executed crime by some aimless small-timer on an amphetamine bender. That security arrived swiftly, sending the burglar - or burglars - running. If not exactly leaving a trail of coins and flint fragments to follow, then at least some solid footage to identify perpetrators by.
It was too much to hope for. Assuming there was more than one, the thieves had climbed a scaffold outside the museum (discernible in the picture above) and smashed a window on the seventh floor which, by Odin's knackers, is part of the magazines. I've been up there myself during my brief stint as an archaeology student.
There is some seriously impressive stuff up there, and the timing could not have been worse: The permanent viking exhibit was down and due for reopening later this year. This may mean that many of the artifacts usually displayed downstairs might have been boxed up in the aforementioned storage. In other words, the thieves may have gotten away with a sizeable chunk of some of the museums most recognized treasures.
The dust settles I'm writing this less than a week after the incident, and many questions are still unanswered. Local newspaper Bergens Tidende quoted the museum director, the venerable Henrik von Achen, as saying that the stores dedicated to the safe keeping of Iron Age objects had had been plundered, among them several artifacts from the Migration and Viking Eras. After some initial confusion as to the extent of the raid the museum now reports 2̶4̶5̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶f̶i̶r̶m̶e̶d̶ ̶l̶o̶s̶s̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶w̶r̶i̶t̶i̶n̶g̶. They expect the numbers to rise significantly as the tally continues. [Update 18/08/17: The museum has adjusted the number of losses to 400]
Thankfully, the museum maintains an extensive photo documentation program. Images of confirmed missing artifacts are uploaded to a dedicated Facebook group run by the staff, hoping to ease recovery by raising awareness and reaching out to the public eye. Though English information is somewhat lacking, these pictures say all you need to know: Dozens of tortoise brooches, bracelets, torques, keys, pennanular brooches, horse tacks, insular fittings, vessels, trefoil brooches, hack silver, coins, and amulets are confirmed so far. Who knows what else. Join the group it and see for yourself.
The questions we need to ask
There are a few serious question to be begged about how this was allowed to happen. Bergen has been plagued by professional art theft in the past, and the sad story of the presumably contracted raid on the Historical Museum in Lund also comes to mind, where precious objects from Uppåkra were lost in 2013. That incident bore all the markings of a professional, well planned burglary. It's less clear cut in the case of Bergen, because the items were practically handed to the burglars on a silver platter - and I'll tell you why.
First of all, the break-in is believed to have taken place some time on Saturday night, which is interesting insofar that it was only discovered about 8am Monday morning. Pardon my Ostrogothic, but if this is true, how the blazing hell does that happen? At first it was claimed that the burglars had executed the break-in without setting off alarms, but it was later admitted that the alarm went off twice. Are the Bergen Museum's security systems so dated that they do not point to a specific floor? How did the security guard fail to notice the broken window? If the burglar consciously set the alarm off twice to simulate false alarm, hiding in the meantime, then security must have fallen victim to the oldest trick in the book. One they should have anticipated. It would be an absolute humiliation to the integrity of the company, for such false positives should have no consequence to security routines - especially at an object of that importance. If this is the case, the guard is obviously not fit for such duties.
How could the construction company be so daft as to not secure the site better? I would presume that security concerns would be part of the work routine, but really, the accountability lies with the museum trusted to keep these artifacts safe. Here's the museological bottom line: The security company screwed up, the construction company screwed up, and they should answer for it, but these were red flags that should have been recognized by the museum itself.
On that note I must add that the museum handled the situation as honorably as they possibly could. As the director Mr. Achen expressed, no museum suffering a break-in can honestly say that their security measures were good enough, so his integrity can't be questioned in that department. They have taken full responsibility for their own, painful losses. If thieves could be accurately anticipated, these things would obviously never happen, yet it goes to show that an up-to-date, thorough security regime is an undeniable and absolute necessity, because this is the alternative is the exact situation they are up against: There is no security footage, there are no suspects. These fragile artifacts may never be recovered, and some have most certainly sustained some kind of permanent damage. They could be sitting in the back of truck bound for the black market in Eastern Europe, or corroding in a puddle of bong water across town, but really they could be anywhere. Your guess is as good as mine. [Update 18/08/17: Media report evidence pointing in the direction that this was indeed a planned, professional strike. This is congruent with the types of artifacts that were stolen.]
Bergen University Museum is pointing no fingers. I suppose they can't, but as an independent voice, I can. I've worked in museums my whole adult life. I know the meager budget sob story all too well. Bad funding affects the security of artifacts, buildings and, last but not least, the museum work force itself. To update their security - as mentioned, an absolute necessity - I fear many museums will have to make cuts that do damage to other departments. We need artifact security, but job security too. To achieve this, many museums will require better funding, one way or another.
The first, cheapest, and easiest line of security belongs to the attentive museum worker, but while museums and their employees hold the task of protecting our cultural heritage, their ability to do this is remarkably dependent on politicians, and the biggest finger of them all, I shall point at them. Blessed is the museum that runs on ticket sales alone. I've certainly never worked at one. In fact, most museums are at the mercy of either private or government funding. Theft is not the only threat here. It's no secret that many museum magazines simply aren't up to scratch in terms of climatization. Finally I shall also break the taboo of criticizing the public, though I usually try to take their side in heritage matters.
Many Norwegians, spoiled by the nanny state as we tend to be, have entirely unrealistic expectations in terms of the duties and services of museums. As citizens of a heavily taxed social democracy claiming to care about public enlightenment, they expect museums to offer their services cheaply, or even for free. Even though entry fees are comparably cheap here, some will not pay the equivalent of two bus rides, or about 70% the price of a movie ticket to see a national treasure. Simultaneously, governments both past and present relieve themselves of their duties by cutting as much cultural funding as their conscience allows them, preferring to build anew rather than maintaining what they started. Meanwhile, museums who have been asking for decades, don't receive the funds to modernize. Still they are expected to fight off mold and vandals alike, even when they barely have enough to pay their workers in the first place. Relying to a great extent on intermediate positions taken as works of passion, with little to no hope of career development.
The museum is a sacred space
I extend my condolences not only to the Bergen University Museum, but to the Norwegian public whose cultural memory has been severely pillaged through this deplorable crime. Norway is a small country built on trust, and the benefit of the doubt. These are core ideals, and relevant to the ongoing domestic debate about so-called Norwegian values.
If, by any chance, the guilty party reads this essay, I want to tell you this, cocksucker, that I hope you realize the symbolic gravity of your deed. You stand shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban, who as a gesture of defiance against world heritage, reduced to rubble the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Your are hardly different from the black market speculation and outright destruction carried out by the zealots of the Islamic State. You are a 1:1 scale copy of the crooked goldsmith Niels Heidenreich who stole and destroyed the Golden Horns of Gallehus for the sake of nothing more sacred than his own greed.
This is what's at stake. Museums are sacred institutions, and I mean this quite literally, not as a trite, literary embellishment. The very term comes from the Greek mouseion (Μουσεῖον), which originally denoted a shrine or temple dedicated to the muses, minor deities of art and inspiration. Museums are temples to the memory of mankind. They are shrines in which we may converse with the past, which grounds us and gives our time and lives context. Offering new and old perspectives alike. Where culture is produced, examined, interpreted, and enjoyed. I'd even wager that beyond visiting the graves of loved ones, and family rites of remembrance, it is the closest thing the Western world has to ancestor worship. While all artifacts have indiscriminate value to the museum, the fact that these items were from Iron Age and Viking Era makes it all the more painful, as these periods have a firm grip on the Norwegian consciousness. The Viking Era being is our founding myth, the Norwegian ethnogenesis, the womb of the nation.
This is not lost on thieves. For artifacts to be recognized in terms of market value, all of the above must be taken into account. But this is nothing compared to the cultural worth of these artifacts. Like a temple, artifacts are deposited and sacrificed. Though they may move from museum to museum, from temple to temple, they must never be fully removed. Art theft is sacrilege. The burglar rapes the muses.
How can you help? By raising awareness, joining the Facebook group, sharing this article, and by keeping an eye open for any suspicious artifacts on the online market. I'm aware several auction houses have been notified. Let's not make it any easier for the criminals.