British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer stepped down today, August 25, months ahead of his slated 2024 departure, and Deputy Director Jonathan Williams agreed to voluntarily step back from his duties for the time being. The announcements come amid highly publicized reports of the theft of items in the museum’s collection by one of its own employees, prompting an internal review and police investigation. In the wake of the reports, the governments of Nigeria and Greece have pointed to potential security risks at the institution and renewed calls for the return of the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles.
On August 16, the British Museum announced it had fired an unnamed staff member in relation to a number of missing objects from its collection. The institution identified the stolen goods as small artworks including jewelry, gems, and glass dating from between the 15th century BCE to the 1800s. Those objects were kept in a storage room and had not been recently exhibited. A British Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that they could not disclose the number of missing works, citing the ongoing investigation.
Although the thefts have only recently entered the public eye, the museum has been aware of them for at least two years, according to emails reviewed by the New York Times. In 2021, Dutch-Danish scholar and gems dealer Ittai Gradel alerted the museum that three gems from the collection were listed on the online marketplace eBay. Gradel had purchased one of those objects plus another 69 works from the same seller. He told the institution at the time that he believed the thief was working from within the museum and leadership opened an investigation.
Deputy Director Williams reported back to Gradel that no objects were missing and no staff members were at fault. Now Williams, who has served as deputy director since 2012, will step back as the museum conducts its review, according to a British Museum statement shared with Hyperallergic.
Fischer, who has served as museum director for eight years, addressed Gradel’s testimony yesterday, August 24. He said the museum had launched a full audit in 2022 that “revealed a bigger problem,” leading the museum to begin the process of firing the staff member, whose name has not been made public. (Some UK media outlets have speculated that the employee in question was Peter Higgs, a veteran curator of Greek art at the museum who was let go last month. Higgs’s family has denied his father’s involvement in the reported thefts and the British Museum told Hyperallergic that it could not confirm the former worker’s identity.)
In his formal resignation announcement, Fischer admitted wrongdoing on behalf of the museum. “It is evident that the British Museum did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings in 2021, and to the problem that has now fully emerged. The responsibility for that failure must ultimately rest with the Director,” reads the statement.
The British Museum is now searching for a new director, a process board chairman George Osborne says has been underway since Fischer first announced his resignation last month.
As internal strife embroils the London institution, the British Museum is facing heightened calls for the repatriation of stolen cultural property. Director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments Abba Isa Tijani addressed the thefts in comments made yesterday, August 24, to Sky News.
“It’s shocking to hear that the countries and museums that have been telling us that the Benin Bronzes would not be secure in Nigeria, have thefts happening there,” Tijani said. The artifacts were seized by British forces during the 1897 Benin Expedition. Other museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Germany’s national museums have already agreed to the bronzes’ return, but the British Museum has stood firm in its refusal.
“The issue is that these are stolen artifacts,” Tijani said. “And they should be returned to Nigeria to the communities that they belong to.”
Meanwhile, Greece made yet another demand for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles. The country issued its first formal request for their return back in 1983. The UK has largely continued to claim complete ownership of the ancient frieze, and negotiations appear to have reached a standstill. Greece’s Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni told Greek newspaper To Vima that the loss and deterioration of objects in a museum collection is an “extremely serious and particularly sad event,” according to a translation by Euronews.
“In fact, when this happens from within, beyond any moral and criminal responsibility, a major question arises regarding the credibility of the museum organization itself,” Mendoni added.
London’s Metropolitan Police is looking into the thefts. As of yesterday, August 24, the authorities had interviewed a suspect, but no arrests have been made.