NEW BEDFORD — City Councilor Brian Gomes says he wants answers: How did the New Bedford Whaling Museum hire a man with a criminal record who after a year on the job in the maintenance department was charged with stealing thousands of dollars worth of historical artifacts from the collection?

“I’m not looking to beat anybody up” for the decision, said Gomes, an at-large councilor who is asking the council to call museum officials to a meeting to answer questions about how they hired Robert M. Burchell, who started work as a  “facilities associate,” in December 2021 and was fired when he was arrested in early January. “I want to know what are your policies and procedures” for hiring.


The council, which seldom if ever rejects a member’s request to ask someone to appear before a council committee, is scheduled to consider Gomes’ motion at the regular meeting on Thursday night. The motion asks that the museum director and security staff members meet with the Committee on Public Safety and Neighborhoods. Gomes, who heads the committee, which is made up of all 11 council members, said the session would probably take place in April.

Gomes said he was particularly interested in knowing if anyone at the museum had checked on Burchell’s criminal record. 

“You wonder how did this person get the job without a CORI check,” said Gomes, referring to the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information system that provides records of criminal arraignments through a search for a person’s name and date of birth. The information must be requested through the system, as criminal cases do not appear in a conventional state court database search unless the search is done on a public computer in a courthouse.

“How many people have been hired without a CORI check in that building?” Gomes asked, referring to the Whaling Museum. “The people we put in that building have to be trusted.”

A story published in the Light last month reported that for years before he was hired, Burchell had a history of criminal charges, mostly for shoplifting. He had served jail time in Bristol County and been sentenced to the Plymouth County House of Correction.  

Gomes said he had not checked with museum officials on whether they would be receptive to appearing. A public relations representative for the museum, a nonprofit private institution that receives a small measure of support from the city, said Wednesday that the museum would decline to comment for this story. 

Three gold pocket watches sold at a Taunton pawnbroker that police say were stolen from the Whaling Museum. Credit: Taunton District Court
This image shows scrimshaw pieces that were stolen from the Whaling Museum and sold at collectibles shop in West Bridgewater. Credit: New Bedford police

At least two council members agreed with the notion of inviting museum representatives to answer questions.

Newly elected Ward 3 member Shawn Oliver said it would make sense to hear more about how the hiring took place. 

“Obviously, you want to get down to root causes, make sure we have the proper checks and balances in place,” Oliver said before a council committee meeting Tuesday. 

Ryan Pereira of Ward 6 said it was fine to ask museum people to appear, but he was skeptical. 

 “I don’t think they’ll come, though,” Pereira said on Tuesday. “They don’t have to.”

The city supports the museum — a main New Bedford tourist attraction that drew 70,000 visitors last year and more before the pandemic — in a couple of ways that give the council some say over whether the money is approved. 

Under the Community Development Block Grant, a federal program that runs under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city for the last 10 years has allocated money for a museum apprenticeship program. Last year, the city contribution was $12,000, said Holly Huntoon, a city public information officer.  

The council approves the annual block grant allocation as a whole, but does not have the authority to remove or add particular items. 

The council does have the authority to vote on particular allocations made as part of the Community Preservation Act, a state program in which New Bedford participates. Using CPA funds — raised through a city property tax surcharge — the city has supported the Whaling Museum in several ways. In the last three years, for instance, more than $390,000 has been allocated to restore the museum building exterior, Huntoon said. 

According to the most recent annual report available on the museum website, operating income for 2021 was nearly $5.6 million.

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Museum officials declined to answer questions for the Light story last month, saying through their public relations representative that they could not comment on an open criminal case. 

Instead, the museum offered a statement that had been released in January by Amanda McMullen, museum president and CEO. McMullen said the museum has “always employed security measures that are above the industry standard, including tech-enabled and human monitoring of our collection. We have swiftly responded to this incident with increased security measures to further protect our collection.”

Burchell, 42, was charged in early January with felony larceny, accused of stealing small items from the museum’s collection of about a million artifacts. According to a police report, he told investigators that he had access to the whole building, and stole items on several occasions. Burchell, who had a history of drug addiction, personal bankruptcy and a string of small-claims debt collection cases, said he would try to sell them and would return pieces he could not sell. 

Authorities declined to comment and it is not clear in the police report when the thefts started. Burchell had sold items in Taunton and New Bedford in early November, then continued in West Bridgewater in December.

A statement from the Bristol County District Attorney put the value of all the stolen pieces at more than $75,000, but the man who discovered the thefts and called the police said he would estimate the pieces are worth a lot more than that. 

Len Estabrooks, owner of West Bridgewater Coin and Jewelry Buyers, where Burchell sold 91 items in five visits to the shop in December, said that it can be hard to know the value of historical artifacts without knowing the story behind each piece. A common item can gain value if it’s associated with a significant historical figure or event, he said. 

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Estabrooks said he paid $11,000 cash for the pieces, which included jewelry and scrimshaw, but had not sold any of them. 

The DA’s office has declined to say how many of the stolen pieces have been recovered, but Estabrooks handed all the pieces he bought over to the West Bridgewater Police. Several watches and a bracelet that Burchell tried to sell in Taunton were also recovered by the police there. 

The case is pending in New Bedford District Court. No trial date or location of trial — district or superior court — have been set. 

Gomes said that while the Whaling Museum is a private institution, the materials held there are part of the city’s heritage, and museum officials are effectively “caretakers” of a kind of public property.

“I would say that belongs to us, it belongs to the City of New Bedford,” Gomes said. “We all deserve to know how this happened.”

Email City Hall reporter Arthur Hirsch at

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  1. Perhaps the showboating Gomes should be dealing with issues that fall within his purview as a city councilor instead of those of a privately owned museum.

  2. The contents of the Whaling Museum belong to the Whaling Museum period.
    The City Council should stick to the things it is mandated to do rather than creating a circus before the case has come to trial.

  3. Councilor Gomes please render care of artifacts to those WHALING MUSEUM to whom they belong.WHAM brings in 70k visitors, who spend $ at city restaurants,and shops a lot more than 12k from city .Every non profit or govt agency can overlook an employee whether it’s a museum or hospital councillor.Stick to issues that belong in citys jurisdiction WHAM is not one of them!

    1. It may not fall under his “jurisdiction ” but they were in a museum, which is technically run my municipalities. So someone done lied to you. The Whalimg Musuem is not PRIVATE. The taxpayers pay for that shit. A museum is not “privately owned” sorry.

      1. Dianna, The City of New Bedford is a municipality with oversight by the City Council. The Whaling Museum is a non-profit organization, with oversight by the Board of Directors. The Whaling Museum is not “technically run my municipalities”. Either someone done lied to you, or you’re not well informed.

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