Hartwig Fischer has announced he is resigning as director of the British Museum with immediate effect, describing the situation as of “the utmost seriousness”. In a very frank statement, he takes full responsibility for the debacle over the handling of the theft of objects from the museum's Greek and Roman department.
Fischer said: “Over the last few days I have been reviewing in detail the events around the thefts from the British Museum and the investigation into them. 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.”
On 28 July, Fischer had announced that he would be stepping down, but this was three weeks before news broke about the theft. In his departure statement he said that he would be leaving next year, and it was thought that this would be in the summer. But the damaging impact of the announcement of the theft on 16 August has transformed the situation.
Fischer today offered his resignation to the museum chair, George Osborne, and says that he “will step down as soon as the board have established an interim leadership arrangement”. Normally in this type of situation, the deputy director would be appointed as the interim acting director. But Fischer’s deputy is Jonathan Williams, who has also been deeply implicated in failing to deal with earlier accusations about the theft.
Fischer also retracted remarks he made on Wednesday, when he was critical of Ittai Gradel, a Danish specialist who alerted the museum to the thefts from 2021: “I also misjudged the remarks I made earlier this week about Dr Gradel. I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks.”
In resigning, Fischer was apologetic: “The situation facing the museum is of the utmost seriousness. I sincerely believe it will come through this moment and emerge stronger, but sadly I have come to the conclusion that my presence is proving a distraction. That is the last thing I would want. Over the last seven years I have been privileged to work with some of the most talented and dedicated public servants. The British Museum is an amazing institution, and it has been the honour of my life to lead it.”
Osborne has accepted Fischer’s resignation, adding: “He has acted honourably in confronting the mistakes that have been made. No one has ever doubted Hartwig’s integrity, his dedication to his job, or his love for the museum.”
The trustees “will now establish an interim arrangement, ensuring that the museum has the necessary leadership to take it through this turbulent period as we learn the lessons of what went wrong, and use them to develop plans for a strong future.”
Osborne concluded: “I am clear about this: we are going to fix what has gone wrong. The museum has a mission that lasts across generations. We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired once again.”
UPDATE (26 August): George Osborne, the chair of trustees at the British Museum, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the museum is beginning to recover some of the stolen artefacts with the help of the antiquarian community. He responded to calls to release a list of the artefacts, saying the museum was working closely with the police who will put a list of the stolen items on Interpol. He estimates that around 2,000 items have gone missing.
The independent review proposed will look into how "the museum missed some of the signals that could have been picked up when a member of the dealing community alerted them to the thefts". He added: "Frankly more could have been done to prevent them [the thefts]. It is a mess we are going to clean up."
Osborne said: "I don't myself believe there was a deliberate cover up although the review may find that to be the case... was there some potential group think in the museum at the time that just couldn't believe an insider was stealing things? Yes, that's very possible."
Responding to concerns about documenting the collection, Osborne said: "The truth is we didn't have a complete catalogue of everything... but someone with knowledge of what's not registered has a big advantage in removing some of those items. A clear outcome from what has happened is that the British Museum has to accelerate the process that was already underway of getting a complete register of the items in our collection."
UPDATE (25 August): The British Museum issued a further statement saying that the deputy director, Jonathan Williams, has "agreed to voluntarily step back from his normal duties until the independent review into the thefts at the museum has concluded. This will happen with immediate effect."