Hartwig Fischer will depart his post as director of London’s British Museum in 2024, marking an end to a tenure that weathered a tense period of public scrutiny for the institution.
Fischer, who has been director of the British Museum since 2016, has helped the institution modernize its building and create a new research and storage facility. The announcement for Fischer’s departure also noted that he had “set the Museum on course for a comprehensive energy transition towards greener, more sustainable energy sources over the coming years.”
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This appeared to be an oblique reference to reports earlier this year that the British Museum may be moving toward ending its partnership with the oil giant BP. Fischer had initially endorsed that partnership, claiming that it allowed the museum to “create unique learning opportunities.” Activists have disagreed, regularly holding protests in which they claim that the partnership makes the museum complicit in the climate crisis.
A host of other controversies have also hit the museum under Fischer’s leadership, many revolving around artworks that are thought to have been looted before ending up in England.
A significant number of Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, are still held at the British Museum, even as many other institutions make moves to repatriates ones from their collection. And the Parthenon Marbles, which many claim to have been stolen from Greece in the 19th century, have repeatedly come up as a flashpoint, with activists, historians, and politicians saying that it is time to give them back.
Fischer generated headlines in 2019 when he stated that the removal of the Parthenon Marbles was a “creative act.” More recently, there have been signs that the UK and Greece were having talks over a possible return of the artifacts.
There have also been flare-ups involving internal politics, such as one in 2019 in which a board member resigned over the British Museum’s BP partnership and another in 2020 when the historian Mary Beard was vetoed from joining the board for her “pro-Europe views,” then was accepted to it anyway by the trustees.
And, earlier this year, the translator and poet Yilin Wang claimed that the British Museum had used her translations Qiu Jin’s poetry for an exhibition without her permission. After the museum apologized and removed the translations, Wang said she would take legal action.
The museum’s announcement of Fischer’s departure was largely celebratory. It mentioned that he would begin his transition out in the coming months and that a search for his replacement would be underway starting in the fall.
“Over the next year,” he said in a statement, “I will push ahead with our plans and secure a successful transition. Looking ahead, I am excited about the next phase of my career, moving beyond the institutional framework of a single museum to engage in the rescue and preservation of cultural heritage in times of climate crisis, conflict, war, and violence.”
George Osborne, chair of the British Museum, said in a statement, “Above all, he has been a person of integrity, inquiry and industry who has given everything to the British Museum over these years. The Trustees respect his decision to move on to new ventures next year.”