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British Museum poaches National Portrait Gallery boss after stolen artefacts scandal

British Museum poaches National Portrait Gallery boss after stolen artefacts scandal

The British Museum has appointed the head of the National Portrait Gallery as its new director following a scandal over stolen artefacts.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, who has been praised for overseeing the renovation of the popular national gallery in London, replaces Dr Hartwig Fischer, who resigned after it emerged the British Museum leadership ignored warnings an insider was selling off artefacts from its collection.

Dr Fischer was embroiled in a controversy after nearly 2,000 items went missing from the museum, and some were found to have been listed on eBay. A senior curator, Dr Peter Higgs, was dismissed for “gross misconduct” in relation to the missing items and is currently being sued by the museum.

Trustees now hope Dr Cullinan, whose hiring has been approved by prime minister Rishi Sunak, will apply his recent experience managing major renovations to their 10-year plan to update the museum.

Dr Cullinan also inherits increasing diplomatic discussions over the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens, where Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the sculptures would be appreciated “in their original setting”.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan said it was an ‘honour’ to be appointed British Museum director (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Dr Nicholas Cullinan said it was an ‘honour’ to be appointed British Museum director (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Greece has been campaigning for decades for the return of the artefacts, which once adorned the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, with the country claiming they were illegally acquired during a period of foreign occupation.

Speaking about his appointment, Dr Cullinan hailed the museum as “one of the greatest in the world”, and said it was “an honour” to become its director.

He vowed to lead the museum “into a new chapter”, which “will encompass the most significant transformations, both architectural and intellectual, happening in any museum globally, to continue making the British Museum the most engaged and collaborative it can be”.

Dr Cullinan said he “looks forward” to working alongside the museum’s “wonderful and dedicated staff” as well as “its hugely impressive board”.

It was revealed in July 2023 that Dr Higgs was dismissed for gross misconduct after more than 1,800 items were found to be missing, stolen or damaged.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the London museum’s trustees say there is “compelling evidence” that Dr Higgs “abused his position of trust” between at least July 2009 and January 2018.

It is believed that hundreds of the missing items were listed for sale on eBay, using PayPal to facilitate payment. The court heard earlier this month that, to date, 356 stolen items have been returned.

Dr Higgs denies the claims and the case is ongoing.

George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum, said: “He has shown his capacity as director of the National Portrait Gallery to oversee both a major physical renovation and a compelling renewal of purpose in a way that doesn’t take sides, but brings people together – and won universal acclaim.

“We believe he can achieve this, and more, on the bigger scale of the British Museum as we undertake a once-in-a-generation redevelopment.”