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British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer to Step Down

2 min read  ·  28 Jul 2023

The German-born director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, has announced that he is stepping down. Fischer, who filled big when he succeeded Neil MacGregor in 2016, will leave in 2024, having launched an ambitious masterplan to redisplay the collection, steered the museum through the Covid pandemic and faced growing criticism by climate activists.

In a statement, Fischer said that the foundations of the masterplan are now laid. “I was called to the British Museum to prepare the essential renovation of a building in need of rejuvenation, a global icon of museum architecture whose complex architectural substance calls for urgent, large-scale intervention," he said, adding: "The renovation work itself will take several decades."

Fisher maintained the British Museum's energetic international touring program, although without the headline-grabbing loans associated with his predecessor to countries to countries such as Iran and Russia. Commercial deals, particularly in China, increased under Fischer, raising an estimated $50m since 2018 for the museum while funding from the UK government fell in real terms. The museum also dabbled in NFTs.

Perhaps the director's most testing time was steered the British Museum through the Covid pandemic, which forced it to close its doors to the public. Urgent repair works to its roof continued through the lockdowns as did work on an collections center outside London.

The arrival in 2021 of George Osborne, a former governement minister, as chair of the trustees marked a change of the museum's position regarding a possible long-term loan of some of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. The UK governement remains adamant, however, over the sculptures that Greece has long campaigned to reclaim and Britain has refused other than on a one-off, short-term basis.

Fischer faced increased pressure to return other artefacts acquired by the museum during the colonial era, in particular the Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British troops. It is working with a planned museum in Benin, nevertheless.

Until 2023, the museum stood by its controversial partnership with BP. The energy company was the lead sponsor of several high-profile special exhibitions, infuriating climate activists, including one in 2017, featuring Scythian gold. The exhibition "Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia" was organised with the help of leading Russian museums, and UK government blessing, depite the Kremlin's illegal occupation of Crimea.

Attitudes changed in 2022 with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. When the British Museum put on show medieval Ukrainian jewellery seized by UK Border Force, which the museum will care for until they can be safely returned to Kyiv. Fischer stressed: “We are working together with other organisations to provide aid and support to museums in Ukraine.”

Before he became the British Museum's first foreign-born director, Fischer was the director of the Dresden State Art Collections. He also led the Folkwang Museum, Essen.