Nicholas Cullinan named director of the British Museum - Museums Association

Nicholas Cullinan named director of the British Museum

Head of London's National Portrait Gallery gets the job - but what's on the agenda for the new director after a tumultuous year?
Nicholas Cullinan
Nicholas Cullinan © Zoë Law, 2018

Nicholas Cullinan has been named the new director of the British Museum after a tumultuous year for the Bloomsbury institution.

Cullinan, an art historian who has led the National Portrait Gallery since 2015, was appointed to the role following the unanimous approval of the board of trustees and agreement of prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Cullinan takes over from interim director Mark Jones, who came out of retirement to steer the museum through its recent theft scandal, which led to the resignations of former director Hartwig Fischer and deputy director Jonathan Williams.

During his tenure at the National Portrait Gallery, Cullinan oversaw the most significant redevelopment in the institution’s history. The gallery reopened in 2023 following a three-year closure, with a complete rehang of the collection and a refurbishment that increased public space by a fifth.

He also led on an innovative international collaboration with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to co-acquire the Portrait of Mai (c. 1776) by Joshua Reynolds, which was the largest-ever acquisition by the gallery and one of the largest in the UK.

Prior to that, Cullinan was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Tate Modern in London.


He holds a PhD in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and sits on several boards, including Chatsworth House Trust. He has published extensively and lectured internationally.

Cullinan will join the British Museum in the summer.

George Osborne, chair of the British Museum, said: “The trustees chose Nicholas Cullinan as the new director of the British Museum because he brings proven leadership today and great potential for tomorrow.

“He has shown his capacity as director of the National Portrait Gallery to oversee both a major physical renovation and a compelling renewal of purpose in a way that doesn’t take sides, but brings people together - and won universal acclaim.

“We believe he can achieve this, and more, on the bigger scale of the British Museum as we undertake a once-in-a-generation redevelopment. In doing so he can build on the solid foundations laid by Mark Jones, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for stepping into the breach last year.

“I could not be more thrilled for Nick and more excited for us as we enter this new chapter in the long story of the British Museum with confidence, and back on the front foot.”


Cullinan said: “One of the greatest museums in the world, it is an honour to become the next director of the British Museum. I look forward to joining its wonderful and dedicated staff and to work with its hugely impressive board in leading it into a new chapter.

“This will encompass the most significant transformations, both architectural and intellectual, happening in any museum globally, to continue making the British Museum the most engaged and collaborative it can be.

“I want to pay tribute to my predecessors, most recently Sir Mark Jones, and look forward to building on their extraordinary achievements. 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 and 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.”

What’s on the agenda for the new director?

Theft scandal

A crisis erupted at the museum last year after it emerged that almost 2,000 artefacts were missing from its collections, with some allegedly sold on eBay. A former staff member was fired after the suspected thefts were uncovered but no-one has yet been charged in connection with the events. Several hundred of the missing items have since been recovered.

Cullinan’s most pressing task will be to steady the ship amid the ongoing fallout from the scandal. In addition to a recovery operation, security review and ongoing criminal investigation, the museum is undertaking a five-year project to digitise its entire collection to prevent similar incidents from happening in future.


As part of a 10-year masterplan, the British Museum is about to embark on a major redevelopment and redisplay of the Western Range galleries in its Bloomsbury site. A competition to find an architect for the project is due to launch this spring. The masterplan will also see the institution create a new government-funded Energy Centre, while the official opening of its Archaeological Research Collection (BM_ARC) at the Thames Valley Research Park is due to take place in June this year.

Sponsorship and protest

The British Museum has courted controversy with its sponsorship arrangements with the fossil fuel industry, most recently the announcement of a new £50m, multi-year partnership with the oil giant BP, which will fund its masterplan.

Anti-fossil fuel campaigners are planning ongoing protest action at the museum in opposition to the BP deal, and say they are seeking legal advice in order to mount a formal challenge to it. A demonstration by the group Energy Embargo for Palestine forced the museum to close its doors early on Sunday 24 March.

As director, Cullinan ended the National Portrait Gallery’s long-running partnership with BP and set up an ethics committee to vet future sponsors. Isobel Tarr, the co-director of campaign group Culture Unstained, told Museums Journal that Cullinan “must urgently address” the British Museum’s sponsorship arrangements and called on him to end the “indefensible sponsorship deal, and [set] the British Museum up for more ethical and sustainable partnerships going forward”.


Cullinan’s tenure at the British Museum could see significant developments in some of the UK’s longest-running repatriation disputes. Despite several setbacks, there is hope that the museum is close to reaching a “mutually beneficial” deal with the Greek authorities that would see the Parthenon sculptures return to Athens in exchange for rolling loans of other treasures from Ancient Greece.

The museum also recently announced plans to loan Asante royal regalia back to Ghana and is involved in projects to return other disputed artefacts on loan, included its Benin bronze holdings to Nigeria. Other high-profile repatriation cases include Rapa Nui’s demand for the return of two moai statues, Ethiopia’s bid to repatriate the Maqdala collection, and the Aboriginal Australian campaign for the return of the Gweagal Shield.

There are calls for a change in legislation to allow the British Museum and other nationals to fully repatriate objects rather than simply loaning them. This debate is likely to intensify in the coming years.

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