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September 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1446

The British Museum

Who would want to be the director of the British Museum? The question is prompted in the first instance by the announcement in July that Hartwig Fischer, who has been the director since May 2016, has resigned. Nobody could ever imagine that his job was easy, but the question has been reinforced in the past few weeks by seemingly relentless bad news. No sooner had the museum settled a claim by the translator Yilin Wang for unauthorised use of her work in the exhibition China’s Hidden Century than it made public the discovery that small pieces of ‘gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD’ have over several years been stolen from a storeroom, allegedly by a senior member of the curatorial staff. This shocking news, announced just as this issue was going to press, will doubtless play out at length over the coming months, but it is plain already from comments on social media that it will be exploited by the many who are demanding that the museum repatriate items it owns, most famously the Parthenon sculptures. If the museum cannot be trusted to protect its collections, it is being asked, would such works not be better looked after in their countries of origin? The argument does not bear much examination, but it is unfortunate, to say the least, that the thefts will magnify an issue that is already – rightly – absorbing great thought and energy on the part of the museum’s staff and trustees at a time when it faces other serious problems. In the short term, there is a need to build up visitor numbers and revenues following the serious losses caused by the pandemic. Urgent financial needs – expenditure rose from £79.8 million in 2021–22 to £103.4 million in 2022–23 – are reinforced by increasing pressure on the museum to relinquish the sponsorship it receives from BP. In the much longer term, it faces the daunting prospect of a complete renovation of its vast and complex building, which in many places is visibly no longer fit for purpose. 

The most urgent requirement for a new director is that they articulate the purposes and ambitions of the museum with charismatic authority and clarity. One vehicle for this is the Masterplan, on which the director and an inner circle of advisers have been working for years. In an Editorial published in this Magazine in 2017 we anticipated its imminent appearance,1 but in fact almost nothing was heard of it in public until the chairman of the museum’s board, George Osborne, announced in a speech at the annual trustees’ dinner in November 2022 that ‘three weeks ago the trustee body agreed to a masterplan that will see the complete reimagination of the British Museum. The details will be published next spring’. We are still waiting; the plan is now scheduled to be made public in the autumn. At the moment all we have to go on is Osborne’s statement in his speech that ‘the ambition is great: we want this to be the Museum of our Common Humanity. A place for the future that connects us to our past and to each other’. Although if the Masterplan is indeed made public in the next few months, Fischer will still be in post, the timing of his resignation, before the plan’s appearance, is baffling. He seems to have handed responsibility for statements about the museum’s purpose to Osborne, who seemingly has also taken the lead in negotiations with the Greek authorities about the Parthenon sculptures.  

Frustration both within as well as outside the museum about the silence surrounding the progress and content of the Masterplan is reinforced by an institutional failure to confront the debates about restitution. Among certain quarters it has become received opinion that the collections are little more than accumulations of colonial loot. The demoralising effect of this on the museum’s highly dedicated – and largely poorly paid – workforce is not hard to imagine. It is perhaps not a coincidence that following the pandemic the museum is finding it difficult to build back its force of volunteers.  

It seems unlikely that when he accepted the job in the very different circumstances of 2015 Fischer entirely appreciated what he was taking on in terms of the scale and complexity of the institution. Even in its own country, a majority do not grasp the fact that the museum has no equals in the world in terms of not just the size and range of its collections but also the role it plays in global research and conservation at the highest level, carried out in a spirit of international outreach and cooperation. To take only a few of the achievements of Fischer’s directorship, the museum is leading a major archaeological campaign at the Sumerian city Girsu in southern Iraq, which has delivered specialised training programmes for both professionals from the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq and students from universities across the country, and in Nigeria it is working in partnership with the Edo Museum of West African Art on a five-year archaeological project that aims to enhance understanding of the urban development of Benin City, and to investigate the development, chronology and origins of Edo traditions of material culture. The museum has in addition for many years worked closely with Borderforce to identify and in many cases conserve and display looted antiquities and works of art seized when smuggled into the United Kingdom; they are then returned to their countries of origin, which have most recently included Ukraine. 

Among the museum’s recent initiatives are the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, set up five years ago, which provides support and funding for teams all over the globe to document traditional material practices and knowledge systems under threat from environmental and social changes, including, for example, methods of food collecting and preparation, boatbuilding and indigenous architecture. The museum has also initiated an impressive number of partnership schemes for sharing works from its collections, ranging from the newly opened South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum and the forthcoming Medieval Gallery at Norwich Castle Keep to the three-year loan of a major Oceanic sculpture, A’a, to the new Museum of Tahiti and The Islands in Punaauia, French Polynesia. 

There is much speculation about who will be brave enough to take on the formidable challenges faced by the British Museum. Although that person cannot work alone, and will have to put in place an executive team to lead the curators in funding and delivering the Masterplan over the years and even decades to come, there is no escaping the fact that the new director will have to demonstrate leadership and communication skills of an exceptionally high order, as well as an ability to navigate the often treacherous political, financial and cultural complexities that come with the job. Yet it should be emphasised also that there are major positive achievements of the past six years on which they will be able to build. 


[1] ‘Editorial: Changing the British Museum’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 159 (2017), p.439.