Disaster-Hit British Museum Will get New Chief

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By Stacy Connor

The British Museum on Thursday named Nicholas Cullinan, an artwork historian who at the moment runs the Nationwide Portrait Gallery in London, as its new director, ending an unsettled interval through which the august establishment lacked a everlasting chief.

Cullinan, 46, will step into the function in the summertime, the British Museum mentioned in a information launch. He’ll instantly face a number of challenges, together with the fallout from an embarrassing scandal through which the museum says a former curator stole over 1,800 objects from its storerooms, then offered most of the artifacts on eBay.

Cullinan may even want to guide an in depth fund-raising drive to pay for a serious refurbishment to the museum. And he must take care of calls for for the return of contested artifacts to their nations of origin, together with the Parthenon Sculptures, often known as the Elgin Marbles, and a set of Benin Bronzes.

Within the information launch, Cullinan mentioned he was trying ahead to taking the museum “into a brand new chapter.” Below his management, he anticipated the museum to endure “important transformations, each architectural and mental,” he added. “I can’t think about a greater problem or alternative to construct on that than collectively reimagining the British Museum for the widest potential viewers,” he mentioned.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum mentioned Cullinan was unavailable for an interview.

The British Museum has been with no everlasting director for seven months, since Hartwig Fischer, a German artwork historian, resigned final August. Fischer’s departure got here shortly after The New York Instances and the BBC reported that he had downplayed issues {that a} curator was stealing objects from the museum. In September, the museum appointed Mark Jones, a former chief of the Victoria and Albert Museum, as Fisher’s interim substitute.

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Overseas governments used the thievery scandal as a chance to resume requires restitution. Final 12 months, Lina Mendoni, Greece’s tradition minister, mentioned that the thefts proved the Parthenon Sculptures weren’t safer in Britain than Greece. Since November 2021, George Osborne, the British Museum’s chairman, and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece have been having negotiations over a possible deal for the return of a number of the sculptures.

Cullinan — who’s seen by museum world insiders as an lively chief, able to overhauling drained establishments — had been the favourite for the British Museum job. Final 12 months, he reopened the Nationwide Portrait Gallery after a highly-praised $53-million renovation.

Because the British Museum approaches its personal refurbishment, Cullinan’s fund-raising acumen might be wanted. Among the many donors he introduced in to pay for the Nationwide Portrait Gallery refurbishment have been Leonard Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born businessman, who gave the museum practically $13 million.

However fund-raising is turning into more and more troublesome for museums, as a result of donors’ enterprise practices and investments are beneath scrutiny. Activists have each praised and criticized Cullinan for the philanthropists he has labored with.

Through the Nationwide Portrait Gallery refurbishment, artists and activists praised Cullinan after he turned down a $1.3 million donation from one of many Sackler household’s charitable arms — one of many first British establishments to distance itself from the household linked to the opioid disaster.

Environmental teams additionally welcomed Cullinan’s determination to finish a sponsorship take care of BP, the oil firm, though final 12 months, a few of those self same activists criticized the Nationwide Portrait Gallery after it introduced an identical sponsorship take care of Herbert Smith Freehills, a legislation agency with connections to the oil business.

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In an interview with the Instances of London, Cullinan defended that sponsorship deal, saying that museums confronted an “more and more difficult” monetary setting and can be “arduous pressed” to discover a financial institution or authorized agency that didn’t have connections to the oil business.

Cullinan, who was born in Connecticut however grew up in Britain, studied artwork historical past on the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Artwork in London. He then labored as a curator of worldwide trendy artwork at Tate Trendy, earlier than spending two years because the curator of contemporary and modern artwork on the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork in New York.

On the Nationwide Portrait Gallery, he collaborated with a number of American establishments. Final 12 months, the museum reached an modern take care of the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, to collectively purchase Joshua Reynolds’s “Portrait of Mai (Omai),” an necessary work that the Nationwide Portrait Gallery couldn’t afford by itself, and shuttle the portray backwards and forwards between the 2 museums.

Katherine E. Fleming, the president and chief government of the J. Paul Getty Belief, mentioned in an e-mail that Cullinan was a terrific selection for the British Museum. His “spectacular expertise runs the gamut from capital tasks to modern acquisition technique,” she mentioned. Cullinan, Fleming added, additionally had “a terrific disposition” for the challenges forward, and can suppose creatively about how to make sure the museum stayed related in a altering world.

When he takes up his new place, Cullinan will turn into the British Museum’s twenty third director since 1753.

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