In England’s museums, an intriguing mystery is unfolding: a collection of items as diverse as a 155-year-old sketch of Queen Victoria, the jawbone of a reptile from 200 million years ago, and a navigational gadget from an aircraft have all gone missing. These treasures, part of a list that includes around 1,700 artefacts, have sparked both concern and curiosity about how we preserve and protect our cultural legacies.

At the center of this intriguing tale is the National Portrait Gallery in London. It recently shared that 45 of its precious items have somehow slipped through the cracks. But it’s quick to reassure that these pieces haven’t been stolen or permanently lost. This news comes just as the gallery swings open its doors again after a three-year pause for renovations, with the missing items representing a tiny fraction—just 0.02%—of its vast collection of over 12,700 portraits and 164,000 images. Interestingly, most of these elusive items are photographic negatives, which, thankfully, have already been digitised and can be viewed online.

But the story doesn’t end with the National Portrait Gallery. The Victoria and Albert Museum, a giant in the world of applied arts and design, reported 180 artefacts missing from its eclectic collection, ranging from oil paintings to an array of items as quirky as false moustaches and undergarments. The museum, however, suggests these disappearances might be more about cataloging errors or items being misplaced during moves rather than actual losses, highlighting the complex behind-the-scenes work of managing such large collections.

National Martime Museum, London

Royal Museums Greenwich also finds itself grappling with missing pieces, including 245 items from its storied collections that span navigational instruments to historical documents. These missing links are attributed to the challenges of updating and transferring data across databases, a reminder of the delicate dance between technology and historical preservation.

The Natural History Museum’s tale of loss includes a jaw fragment of a reptile that lived during the Late Triassic period, shedding light on the vast range of items under the care of museums and the myriad ways they can be lost or misplaced.

In response to these challenges, museums like the Science Museum Group are getting creative, employing modern technology such as barcoding to keep better track of their treasures. This initiative represents a hopeful stride towards safeguarding our collective history.

Even the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Armouries have had their share of mysteries, from missing ship camouflage drawings to a 19th-century cannon believed stolen for its scrap value. These incidents highlight the ongoing battle against time, human error, and sometimes, theft, in the effort to preserve our past.

As we consider these stories of missing museum items, we’re reminded of the fragility of our cultural heritage and the importance of the work done by museums. It’s a narrative that underscores not just the challenges of preserving history but also the dedication and innovation of those tasked with this important responsibility. Their efforts ensure that future generations will continue to have a window into the rich tapestry of human achievement and imagination.

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