Just days after the British Museum announced it had fired an employee suspected of looting its stores and selling items on eBay, the museum’s director announced on Friday that he would resign, with immediate effect.
Hartwig Fischer, a German art historian who has led the world-famous institution since 2016, said in a press release that he was leaving his post at an “extremely dangerous” time.
Mr Fisher, 60, said it was “obvious” that the museum under his leadership had not responded adequately to warnings that a curator might steal items. “The responsibility for this failure should ultimately lie with the manager,” said Mr. Fisher.
A few hours after Mr. Fisher’s resignation, the museum announced that its deputy director, Jonathan Williams, had “also agreed to voluntarily step aside from his normal duties” until the investigation into the thefts was completed.
Trouble has been brewing at the British Museum since it announced last week that pieces from its collection had been stolen. The museum did not say how many pieces were stolen or what their value was. But it said the missing, stolen or damaged items include “gold jewelry, precious stones and semi-precious glass” dating back to the 15th century BC.
Since then, a flood of revelations about the museum’s handling of thefts has undermined Mr. Fisher’s position. On Tuesday, the New York Times and the BBC published emails showing that Fisher had downplayed concerns raised by Itay Gradel, the Danish-based antiquities dealer, about potential thefts.
In an email to a trustee in October 2022, Mr Fisher said the “case has been thoroughly investigated”, adding that “there is no evidence to support these allegations”.
Mr. Fisher initially defended his response, saying in a statement on Wednesday that his handling of the allegations was vigorous and that the museum took the warnings “incredibly seriously”. He added that the extent of the problem only became clear later, after the museum conducted a “full audit” of its collections.
His defense did little to quell criticism in Britain. Wednesday, Times of London He wrote that the thefts were “a national disgrace, calling into question the museum’s claims of managing cultural treasures, for which it needs to give a full accounting”.
The drama has also been watched closely in countries seeking to recover items from the British Museum’s massive collection of more than eight million objects, many from former British colonies. Lawmakers in Greece and Nigeria used the thefts as an opportunity to call for the return of the disputed artifacts.
Said Lina Mendoni, Greek Minister of Culture In an interview on Monday with To VimaA Greek newspaper said the case strengthened its country’s demand for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, a series of frieze sculptures and panels, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, that once adorned the Parthenon temple in Athens. Ms. Mendoni said the thefts raised questions about the “safety and safety of all the museum’s exhibits”.
And on Thursday, Nigerian officials And they repeated their long-standing advocacy That the British Museum return a group of artifacts known as the “Benin Bronzes”, which were looted by British forces in 1897.
Mr. Fisher’s presence in the museum coincided with a massive change in attitudes about what legitimately belonged in museums in the West, and an increase in the volume and intensity of repossession claims. he He took over work at the British Museum in 2016having previously directed the Dresden State Collections, the most prestigious collection of museums in Germany.
And in late July, shortly before word broke that the museum had fired a worker suspected of theft, Mr. Fisher announced that he would do so. Step down next year. But as the crisis at the museum deepened this week, his stance looked increasingly unsustainable.
Charles Saumarez-Smith, former director of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, said the unrest came at a “very bad moment”. The British Museum is expected to announce a major renovation project The Financial Times reported that the cost of the project would be one billion pounds sterlingHe said the amount was $1.26 billion, or about $1.26 billion, and that the current uncertainty could make fundraising more difficult.
Mr Saumarez-Smith said the resignation was a “symbolic act of bloodshed”, but it might not end the British Museum’s problems. He added that it was clear that there were “larger issues that needed to be resolved” at the corporation, including questions about whether it had control over its stockpile.
In his statement, Mr. Fisher said he expected the museum to “move through this moment and come out stronger” but “has come to the conclusion that my presence is a distraction”.
“This is the last thing I want,” he said.
George Osborne, the museum’s president, said in the statement that the board accepted Mr Fisher’s decision. “I am clear about this: we will fix what went wrong,” Osborne said. “The museum has a mission that continues through generations. We will learn, regain trust, and be admired again.”
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