Just days after the British Museum announced that it had fired an employee suspected of looting storerooms and selling items on eBay, the museum’s director announced Friday that he was resigning, effective immediately.
Hartwig Fischer, a German art historian who has led the world-renowned institution since 2016, said in a news release that he is stepping down at a time of “extreme importance.”
Mr. Fisher, 60, said it was “revealing” that the museum under his leadership did not respond appropriately to warnings that a curator might steal items. “The responsibility for that failure must rest with the director,” Mr. Fisher said.
Hours after Mr. Fisher’s resignation, the museum announced that its deputy director, Jonathan Williams, had “voluntarily agreed to step down from his normal duties” until an investigation into the theft is complete.
The British Museum has been in trouble since it announced last week that items had been stolen from its collection. The museum did not say how many objects were taken or how much they were worth. But it said the lost, stolen or damaged pieces included “gold jewelry and “semi-precious stones and glass gems” dating back to the 15th century BC.
Since then, a stream of revelations surrounding the museum’s handling of the theft has undermined Mr. Fisher’s position. On Tuesday, The New York Times and the BBC published emails showing that Mr Fischer downplayed the concerns of Denmark-based antiquities dealer Itai Gredel about possible theft.
In an email to a trustee in October 2022, Mr. Fisher said that “the matter has been thoroughly investigated,” adding that “there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations.”
Mr Fisher initially defended his response, saying in a statement on Wednesday that his complaints had been tough to handle and that the museum took the warnings “incredibly seriously”. The extent of the problem only became apparent later, he said, after the museum conducted a “thorough audit” of its collection.
His defense did little to assuage criticism in Britain. on wednesday, The Times of London wrote that the thefts were “a national scandal, which calls into question the museum’s own claim to circulation of cultural treasures, and for which it must fully account.”
The unfolding drama was also closely watched by countries that want back pieces of the British Museum’s vast collection, which includes more than 8 million items, many from Britain’s former colonies. Legislators in Greece and Nigeria used the thefts as an opportunity to return contested artifacts.
Lina Mendoni, Minister of Culture of Greece In an interview with To Vima on Monday, a Greek newspaper, that case strengthened his country’s demand for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, a series of sculptures and frieze panels, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens. The theft “raises questions about the security and integrity of all the museum’s exhibits,” Ms. Mendoni said.
And on Thursday Nigerian officials Reiterated their long-standing call To return to the British Museum a collection of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes, which had been looted by British troops in 1897.
Mr. Fisher’s time at the museum coincided with a sea change in attitudes about what was in Western museums and an increase in the volume and intensity of demands for restoration. he In 2016 took charge at the British MuseumFormerly a prestigious collection of German museums, the State Art Collection in Dresden operates.
In late July, shortly before news broke that the museum had fired an employee suspected of theft, Mr. Fisher announced that he Resign next year. But his position looks increasingly precarious as the crisis at the museum deepens this week.
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 According to the Financial Times, the cost will be 1 billion poundsor about $1.26 billion, and the current uncertainty could make fundraising more difficult, he said.
The resignation was “an act of symbolic bloodshed,” Mr. Saumarez Smith said, but it would not end the British Museum’s woes. The organization clearly has “big issues that need to be addressed”, he added, including questions about whether it has a handle on its inventory.
Mr. Fisher said in his statement that he hoped the museum would “come to this point and be strong” but that he “has come to the conclusion that my presence is proving a distraction.”
“That’s the last thing I want,” he said.
Museum chairman George Osborne said in a statement that the board accepted Mr Fisher’s decision. “I’m clear on this: we’re going to fix what went wrong,” Mr Osborne said. “The museum has a mission that spans generations. We will learn, regain confidence and deserve to be appreciated again.”