British Museum Appoints New Director Amidst Theft Scandal

Nicholas Feature

Nicholas Cullinan, the current director of the UK's National Portrait Gallery, has been selected as the new director of the British Museum.

Cullinan's appointment comes amidst a challenging period for the museum, marked by a scandal involving the theft of Greek and Roman antiquities, and ambitious plans for renovation and expansion.

At 46, Cullinan brings a track record of success, having spearheaded a highly acclaimed renovation of the National Portrait Gallery, earning praise from experts and the public alike.

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He replaces Mark Jones, who assumed the role of interim director after the sudden departure of Hartwig Fischer last August. Fischer's exit was prompted by the revelation of a significant antiquities theft spanning years, particularly from the Greek and Roman sections of the museum. Several staff members have been dismissed, and legal action has been taken against former curator Peter Higgs.

In response to Cullinan’s appointment, Christos Tsirogiannis, who heads illicit antiquities trafficking research for the UNESCO chair on threats to cultural heritage at the Ionian University in Corfu, added: “Any director should be judged from his actions and their results. The British Museum needs primarily to change its mentality in the way it is safeguarding and exhibiting objects, in the way it is behaving to the countries these objects came from and to academics who are trying to conduct research on questionable antiquities in the museum’s collections.”

In addition to restoring the museum's reputation and overseeing the extensive renovation project, Cullinan is likely to encounter mounting pressure for the repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece and restitution of other colonial-era acquisitions. Following the thefts, the museum has committed to a comprehensive digitisation effort over the next five years.

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Cullinan's rich background includes roles as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern, complemented by his studies in art history at the Courtauld Institute. His appointment received unanimous approval from the museum's board of trustees and was endorsed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He is set to assume his new position this summer.

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