Crisis-hit British Museum names interim director

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Crisis-hit British Museum names interim director
Hartwig Fischer, who resigned on Aug. 25, 2023, after having served as the director of the British Museum since 2016, in London, on Aug. 27, 2020. Since news broke in August that an employee had been fired over the theft of potentially thousands of items from its storerooms, the British Museum has faced renewed calls to give back contested objects and an uphill battle to raise funds for refurbishment. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

LONDON.- Almost three weeks after the British Museum was plunged into crisis by the revelation of thefts from its storerooms, the London institution said it would come under new leadership.

On Saturday night, the museum said in a news release that Mark Jones, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, was to become its interim director, subject to British government approval.

George Osborne, the British Museum’s chair, said in the release that Jones was “one of the most experienced and respected museum leaders in the world, and he will offer the leadership and grip the museum needs right now.”

“His priorities are to accelerate the cataloging of the collection, improve security, and reinforce pride in the curatorial mission of the museum,” Osborne said.

Jones, 72, who did not did not comment in the news release, replaces Hartwig Fischer, a German art historian who resigned Aug. 25 — nine days after the museum announced that a worker had stolen “gems of semiprecious stones and glass,” some thousands of years old, from its stores.

A few days after those thefts were announced, The New York Times and the BBC published emails that showed Fischer had dismissed warnings from an art dealer about a thief among the museum’s staff. In 2021, the dealer contacted museum administrators with what he said was proof that a senior curator had tried to sell items from the collection on eBay.

A few weeks before the scandal broke, Fischer announced he was would leave the British Museum in 2024, and the museum began searching for a replacement. That search will continue under Jones’ interim leadership.

Jones will arrive to an overflowing in tray. In recent weeks, several foreign governments including Greece and Nigeria have renewed claims for artifacts in the British Museum’s collection. The museum is also set to announce a major refurbishment project for which Jones will have to oversee a fundraising drive.

The new leader is not a stranger to such challenges. During his time leading the Victoria and Albert Museum, from 2001 to 2011, Jones reintroduced free admission and oversaw a major refurbishment of the galleries. He also dealt with the fallout from several thefts. In three incidents in 2004, thieves stole eight Italian Renaissance bronze plaquettes from the museum; 15 Meissen porcelain figures worth nearly $4,000 each; and $100,000 worth of Chinese jade. After those incidents, the museum tightened its security, including by replacing old display cases and installing improved surveillance cameras and alarm systems.

Jones cut his teeth as a museum administrator at the British Museum, where he was a curator for coins and medals from for 1974 to 1992. Shortly before he left to run the National Museums of Scotland, he oversaw the acclaimed exhibition “Fake? The Art of Deception,” which included counterfeit items that the British Museum had been duped into acquiring.

One of the most high-profile issues that any British Museum director must grapple with is the future of the Parthenon Marbles, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures and frieze fragments that once decorated the Parthenon, in Athens. In 2002, Jones supported a campaign to share the artifacts between Britain and Greece. “It can be good to display objects at different places,” he told The Observer, a British newspaper, at the time.

Since November 2021, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece and Osborne, the British Museum chair, have been holding talks over a potential deal that would see some of the sculptures travel from London to Athens on a long-term loan.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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