An international search for the next director of the British Museum will kick off in autumn after Hartwig Fischer announced that he is stepping down from the role.
Fischer will stay in place until 2024 to support the transition to new leadership.
Appointed in 2016, his tenure has been focused on the development of a masterplan for renovation of the historic building in Bloomsbury, London, and redisplay of its collection – a project that could end up as the UK’s most expensive ever museum development.
Work on the “multigenerational” masterplan is nearing completion and it is due to be published this autumn. An international architectural competition will follow.
The masterplan will drive the museum’s transition towards greener, more sustainable energy sources over the coming years.
Fischer has led on one of the first phases of the masterplan, the new British Museum Archaeological Research Collection, a research and storage facility due to open next year in Shinfield, Berkshire.
His tenure has seen the expansion of the museum’s global partnerships, with collaborative research projects established in Africa, China, India, South America, Australia, and cultural heritage preservation projects in Iraq and Nigeria.
Fischer also saw the institution and its 900-strong staff team through the Covid pandemic.
Fischer said: “In 2016, I was called to the British Museum to prepare the essential renovation of a building in need of rejuvenation, a global icon of museum architecture whose complex architectural substance calls for urgent, large-scale intervention.
“The renovation work itself will take several decades, but the mission I was given by the trustees has been accomplished: the foundations of the BM Masterplan are now laid. It will serve as the basis for all subsequent work and forms the foundation to innovative concepts for the future display.
“I have had the privilege of leading a team of outstanding professionals and collaborating with inspiring partners, communities and institutions from across the UK and the world. I am very proud of what we have achieved. It is now time to pass on leadership to continue creating a truly global museum whilst remaining at the heart of Britain’s cultural life.”
Culture secretary Lucy Frazer said: “I thank Hartwig for his sterling leadership of the British Museum over the last eight years.
“From leading the organisation through the pandemic and welcoming back millions of visitors a year, to opening up a world-class storage and research facility and developing partnerships around the world, Hartwig leaves a valuable legacy.”
An art historian from Hamburg, Germany, Fischer said he is planning a change of direction in his career to focus on the rescue and preservation of cultural heritage in times of crisis and conflict.
Climate, colonialism and repatriation: A time of change for the British Museum
Fischer’s directorship of the British Museum has coincided with a time of upheaval and change across the sector.
During his tenure the museum has seen large-scale protests and trustee resignations over its decision to continue a longstanding sponsorship arrangement with the oil giant BP. However the museum’s stance on fossil fuel sponsorship has slowly shifted in recent years; its previous deal with BP expired in February and has not been renewed.
Anti-fossil fuel campaigners have called on Fischer to commit the museum to accepting no more funding from the fossil fuel industry before he leaves.
A spokesman for Culture Unstained, which coordinated many of the protests at the museum, said: “As protests grew in vision and ambition and climate impacts intensified, Fischer stubbornly defended BP and his sponsorship deal with one of the world’s biggest polluters.
“But with BP’s contract ending earlier this year, he should now seize the opportunity to show climate leadership before he leaves, by committing the museum to taking no more funding from fossil fuels and renaming its ‘BP Lecture Theatre’.”
Restitution and decolonisation have also become increasingly urgent and controversial issues.
Since 2016 a sea change has taken place in museums’ approaches to repatriation and addressing colonial legacies, but the British Museum has sometimes been seen as slow to respond and take meaningful action.
However, Fischer’s time at the institution saw a number of significant advancements, including a breakthrough in the decades-long deadlock between the UK and Greece over the Parthenon sculptures. Since 2021, “constructive” talks have been taking place between officials from both countries and there are indications of a deal that could see the objects return to Greece as part of a shared cultural partnership.
Other sensitive repatriation cases, including the Benin bronzes and Rapa Nui statue, remain for Fischer’s successor to tackle.
“The board must not waste this opportunity to choose a new director that will meaningfully address issues of restitution, the museum’s colonial origins, and set out ethical red lines on sponsorship,” said the Culture Unstained spokesman.