Just days after the British Museum announced the dismissal of an employee suspected of looting its stores and selling items on eBay, the museum director announced his resignation on Friday, effective immediately.
Hartwig Fischer, a German art historian who has led the world-renowned institution since 2016, said in a press release that he was leaving his post at a time of “the utmost gravity”.
Mr Fischer said it was “obvious” that under his leadership the museum had failed to respond adequately to warnings that a curator might steal items. “The responsibility for this failure ultimately lies with the director,” Mr. Fischer said.
The crisis became public when the British Museum announced last week that objects had been stolen from its collection. The museum did not say how many items were taken, but said the missing, stolen or damaged pieces included “gold jewelry and ‘semi-precious stones and glass’ dating as far back as the 15th century BC.
Since then, a series of revelations about the museum’s handling of thefts have shaken Mr. Fischer’s position. On Tuesday, the New York Times and the BBC published emails showing he had played down concerns raised by Ithai Gradel, a Denmark-based antiques dealer, about potential thefts.
Mr. Fischer, in an email to an administrator in October 2022, said that “the matter has been thoroughly investigated”, adding “there is no evidence to support the allegations”.
Mr Fischer initially defended his response, saying in a statement Wednesday that his handling of the allegations had been firm and that the museum had taken the warnings “incredibly seriously”. The scale of the problem only became clear later, after the museum undertook “a comprehensive audit” of its collections, he added.
His defense did little to appease critics in Britain. On Wednesday, The Times of London wrote that the thefts were “a national disgrace, calling into question the museum’s own claims about its stewardship of cultural treasures, and for which it must be fully accountable”.
Announcing his resignation, Mr Fischer said it was clear that “the British Museum has not responded as fully as it should have to the warnings of 2021 and the problem which has now fully emerged”.
He was already considering leaving the institution. In July, Mr Fischer announced he would leave the British Museum in 2024, after eight years as director. But the crisis brought that date closer.
The museum would “get through this moment and come out stronger,” Mr. Fischer said, “but unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that my presence is proving to be a distraction. It’s the last thing I want.”
George Osborne, president of the museum, said in the statement that the board had accepted Mr. Fischer’s decision. “I’m clear on this: we’re going to fix what went wrong,” Mr Osborne said. “The museum has a mission that spans generations. We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired again.