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 said it was “obvious” that the museum under his leadership had not responded appropriately to warnings that a curator might steal some items. “The responsibility for this failure should ultimately lie with the manager,” said Mr. Fisher.
The crisis became public when the British Museum announced last week that some pieces had been stolen from its collection. The museum did not say how many pieces were stolen, but said the missing, stolen or damaged pieces 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 he had played down concerns raised by Ithai Gradel, the Denmark-based antiquities dealer, about potential thefts.
“The case has been thoroughly investigated,” Mr. Fisher said, in an email to a trustee in October 2022, adding, “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”.
In announcing his resignation, Mr Fisher said it was clear that “the British Museum has not responded as comprehensively as it should to the warnings in 2021, and to the problem which has now fully emerged”.
He was already planning to leave the institution. In July Mr. Fisher He announced that he will be leaving the British Museum in 2024, after eight years as director. But the crisis has brought that date much closer.
Mr Fisher said the museum would “get over this moment and come out stronger, but unfortunately I have come to the conclusion that my presence is a distraction. That’s the last thing I want.”
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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