British Museum Taps Nicholas Cullinan as New Director Following Theft Scandal

Cullinan has been head of London's National Portrait Gallery since 2015.

Nicholas Cullinan at Frieze Masters on October 6, 2023 in London, England. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images for dunhill.

The British Museum announced today that it has appointed Nicholas Cullinan as its new director, following the rushed resignation of Hartwig Fischer last summer after his team missed vital opportunities to prevent a spate of shocking thefts. Cullinan has been head of London’s National Portrait Gallery since 2015, where he recently oversaw a major $52 million renovation.

“Leading the remarkable transformation of the National Portrait Gallery over the last decade with its wonderful Trustees, staff and supporters has been the honour of a lifetime,” Cullinan said in a press statement. “I can’t imagine a better challenge or opportunity to build on that than collectively reimagining the British Museum for the widest possible audience and future generations.”

His experience will come in handy, as the British Museum is currently raising funds to modernize its ailing infrastructure, which includes mending a leaky roof and building a new energy center.

The institution is still recovering from last summer’s theft scandal. Earlier this week, the museum initiated legal proceedings against ex-curator Peter Higgs, who is accused of stealing around 1,800 objects from the collection and, in some cases, selling them for cheap on eBay. A search for the missing items is ongoing and attempts to address the vulnerabilities exposed by the theft have necessitated a $12 million mission to digitize the museum’s entire collection within the next five years.

Other challenges associated with leadership at the British Museum include the politically complicated question of how to handle the collection’s many contested artifacts, most notably the Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes. In late 2023, the museum renewed its highly controversial partnership with long time sponsors British Petroleum for $63 million, a decision that has sparked multiple protests.

Prior to joining the National Portrait Gallery, Cullinan spent two years as curator of modern and contemporary art at the Met in New York and six years as a curator at Tate Modern. Though he was born in Connecticut, Cullinan grew up in Yorkshire in the north of England and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Cullinan’s appointment was unanimously approved by the board of trustees and prime minister Rishi Sunak. He will begin his new role in the summer, replacing interim director Mark Jones, who has been steering the beleaguered museum since September.

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