Beleaguered British Museum Appoints New Director

Nicholas Cullinan is leaving London’s National Portrait Gallery to take on a new role as director of the British Museum, which has been riddled with controversies in the last year. Cullinan’s appointment, unanimously approved by the museum’s board of trustees and accepted by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, was announced today, March 28.

Cullinan’s designation follows a tumultuous year for the British Museum, involving a highly publicized theft scandal that resulted in the firing of a museum employee as well the resignations of former Director Hartwig Fischer and Deputy Director Jonathan Williams. Earlier this week, the British Museum sued former Senior Curator Peter Higgs, alleging that he stole artifacts from its collections and distributed them to dozens of buyers over a 10-year period.

Cullinan has been at the helm of the National Portrait Gallery since the spring of 2015, overseeing a significant £41.3 million (~$52.1 million) building refurbishment and redisplay of the museum’s art collection. He also played a key role in the co-acquisition of Joshua Reynolds’s “Portrait of Omai” (1776) along with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles after the United Kingdom extended its temporary export ban on the painting.

Previously, Cullinan held curatorial positions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Tate Modern, where he co-curated a 2014 exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs that later traveled to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees focusing on art history from the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, where head curators at the Frick Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Broad Museum, and other cultural institutions have attended.

As he steps into his new role, Cullinan will have to grapple with multiple challenges, including the fallout from the thefts and increasing pressure from environmental activists to divest from longtime funder British Petroleum. The institution also continues to face scrutiny over its ties to imperialism, in part brought on by its repeated refusal to repatriate looted cultural artifacts in its collection. In February, Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni criticized the museum for allowing the Parthenon Marbles — ancient sculptures that the country has been requesting be returned for years — to serve as a backdrop to a fashion show.

Hyperallergic has reached out to the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and Cullinan for comment.

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