British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer Will Step Down, Leaving the Unresolved Parthenon Marbles Debate to His Successor

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Hartwig Fischer will step down from his role as director of the British Museum next year and his replacement, who will be determined after an international search, will inherit the institution’s controversies.

Fischer said it was time to pass on the leadership role to someone else and that the next phase of his career includes “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.”

It was not clear precisely what role Fischer, the first non-British head of the museum since 1866, will be moving to next.

The British Museum said in the announcement that Fischer had helmed the institution for “eight successful years,” and that he will support the transition efforts.

“Hartwig can look back on his eight years as director with pride in his great achievements,” said British Museum chairman George Osborne.

“He has led the British Museum through a pivotal period, developing a comprehensive masterplan for a bright, long-term future. He has been an intellectual tour de force.”

Osborne touted Fischer’s championing of what he called “brilliant exhibitions” like “Stonehenge” and “China’s Hidden Century.”  (A Chinese-language translator recently retained lawyers to sue the museum for copyright infringement over material in the latter exhibit. The museum has said it “fully accepts it made a mistake” and offered her compensation.)

“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,” Osborne added.

British Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer similarly praised Fischer’s “sterling leadership” through the pandemic, and for welcoming back millions of visitors a year.

Some of Fischer’s accomplishments include the creation of a new research and storage facility, an archaeological research collection (which will open next year), the refurbishments of galleries at the museum’s Bloomsbury site, and the launching of major collaborative research projects on four continents.

Still, Fischer’s legacy has faced scrutiny for what some view as “imperialist” remarks he made in 2019 defending the British Museum’s retention of the Parthenon Marbles. Also known as the Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon Marbles are stone friezes removed from the ancient Greek site by the British aristocrat Lord Elgin in the early 1800s when Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, in what is now Turkey.

“When you move cultural heritage into a museum, you move it out of context. Yet that displacement is also a creative act,” Fischer said at the time. He also noted that neither the Acropolis Museum, an archaeological museum in Athens opposite the Parthenon, nor the British Museum are the “original context” for the marbles.

Fischer’s comments sparked tensions between the governments of the U.K. and Greece, which has been seeking the return of the marbles since 1832.

Earlier this year, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the two countries might have finally reached an acceptable win-win deal.

But, Mitsotakis said Greece would never accept that the marbles are legally owned by the British Museum and refuses to call any possible temporary possession by Greece a “loan.”

In another change this year, there have been rumors that the British Museum could end its controversial partnership with British Petroleum (BP) after years of climate protests. The British Museum has not yet acknowledged the end of the deal.

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