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Radio review: Thief at the British Museum, The Briefing Room, and Child

07 June 2024

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The British Museum

The British Museum

THE most revealing moment in Katie Razzall’s excellent series on the missing artefacts from the British Museum, Shadow World: Thief at the British Museum (Radio 4, Mondays), comes when a colleague of Dr Peter Higgs, the defendant in the civil case that the museum is bringing, who denies the museum’s allegations against him, argues that he could not have stolen them. How could such an intelligent man be so stupid as to sell his ill-gotten gains on eBay?

There is baked into this comment a double helping of snobbery: incredulity that such a sordid deed should be committed by a man of such elevated academic status, and that it could be carried out so ineptly. Surely a brilliant mind is capable only of a brilliant crime.

Nevertheless, as learned from the programme, it would have been easy to stuff a fistful of uncatalogued antiquities into a coat pocket and flog them to buyers who didn’t ask questions or didn’t know the questions to ask. The hero of this series is the Danish dealer Dr Ittai Gradel, who traced many of the objects to collectors and museums around the world, and brought them back to the museum (News, 25 August 2023).

Through him, we meet an exotic miscellany of characters, all of whom have dedicated their lives to little pieces of history, often at the expense of living space. And one can hardly begrudge them their objects, even if nefariously obtained; for at least someone is caring for and admiring them. In contrast, literally millions of such pieces languish in the strongrooms of the museum, their existence acknowledged by some scrap of paper.

Galvanised by the huge embarrassment of this episode, the museum is now embarked on a digitisation project that will keep the curators busy for many years. In the mean time, it marks the reappearance of a missing item, as US estate agents celebrate a sale, with the ringing of a bell — itself, in this instance, bought on eBay.

As the BBC’s reputation for impartiality gradually fades, expectation falls more heavily on programmes such as The Briefing Room (Radio 4, Thursdays). Judging by last week’s episode, which asked the question “How much trouble are UK universities in?”, David Aaronovitch and his team are managing effectively with a panel structure that allows experts to speak in an unflustered and unconfrontational format.

In such an environment, it is possible to discuss in a dispassionate manner the link between university finances and migration without the accompanying stench of political prejudice. It was to the programme’s credit that a member of the Migration Advisory Committee was not allowed to comment on her own recent report, and her homework was, instead, turned over to a fellow panellist, an economist from the LSE, for viva voce examination.

The long-running series Child (Radio 4, Fridays), which explores the developmental journey of the neonate, is coming to an end. As a demonstration of its quality, take last week’s episode on lullabies and motherese. Mercifully, the whole series will be available for some months to come.

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