‘Stolen’ artefacts and finding a billion: what awaits British Museum boss

    Dear Nicholas Cullinan,

    First, congratulations on becoming the new director of the British Museum. And at 46 too. It’s the biggest job in our museum world and to have risen to the post so quickly is an impressively modern achievement.

    That said, I was surprised by your sudden departure from your present bailiwick at the National Portrait Gallery. I know you have been director there since 2015, but it really doesn’t feel like it. For the first five years, your leadership was so light we barely noticed you. Then came Covid. Then the gallery was closed for three years for its big rebuild. Only now, as the crowds pour into your palace of famous faces, has it become clear how effective you are. Just as you’re leaving!

    At the British Museum you will be stepping into huge shoes. Not the ones belonging to the last director, Dr Hartwig Fischer, who turned out to be a tiny-toed German dud, but the one before that, the super-bright and magnificent Neil MacGregor. What a man, what a leader.

    Under St Neil, the museum gave the impression of always being on the side of the angels as it positioned itself as a repository of global knowledge. Alas, since St Neil’s departure, it has reverted to being a basket case.

    Among the tinier problems you will need to address are the allegations of staff pilfering. The news that hundreds of museum possessions were being flogged on eBay shocked us to the core. Mind you, having been in the basements where you store stuff, I’m not surprised that any Lupins in the museum were able to keep nicking for so long. I’ve been to car boot sales arranged more carefully than the British Museum stacks.

    Assuming you manage to stamp down on the eBaying, two gigantic problems will be facing you. The first is money. You don’t have any. And you need lots of it to stop the building from falling down and the rain from leaking all over the Rosetta Stone.

    Apparently the cost of the refurbishment that’s needed could rise to a billion pounds. Gulp. Fortunately fundraising is one of the skills you displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. Not only did you raise £41 million to rebuild the front entrance but, even more impressively, you started a campaign to have Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of the Polynesian visitor Omai “saved for the nation” for a staggering £50 million. I thought it was absurdly overpriced. But you got the lolly.

    Your success at raising money and bringing renovations in on time and on budget are said to be the chief reason you got the museum gig. The chairman of trustees, George Osborne, was impressed: it’s his kind of achievement.

    Of course, it’s unfortunate that the deputy chairwoman, the broadcaster Muriel Gray, resigned in November before the museum’s acceptance of a £50 million donation from BP. Nicholas, take it from me, the Just Stop Oil bunch won’t be happy either. My advice is to refuse the donation — and make sure everyone knows you’ve done it. Yes, finding the £50 million elsewhere will be tough. But not as tough as spending the rest of BM history looking over your shoulder. Alternatively, you could build a wall all the way round the museum like the one they have in Texas to keep out the Nicaraguans?

    Money is one problem. But from where I’m sitting an even bigger one is the direction the museum will take now that everyone around the world is asking for their art back. So far, it has been resolute in bashing back the global demands. But how long can it hold out?

    What doesn’t wash any more is the argument that the art of the world is safer in the museum than it would have been in its original home. Not only is there the danger of things turning up on eBay, but the story is now out of how, in the 1930s, the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen scrubbed several millimetres off the surface of the Elgin Marbles in a demented effort to make them appear whiter. He’d paid for the gallery. So the museum let him get on with it.

    Looking ahead, the Greeks will keep wanting their whitened marbles back, the Nigerians will want the Benin bronzes, the Maoris their ancestral heads, and so on. Some of those demands will need to be met. It was never right to hang on to war loot and shadily acquired goods. It is especially wrong today. The days of amassing are over.

    St Neil’s greatest achievement was to engineer a reputation for the museum as a treasury of world wonders, a global resource, available to all. He loaned more works to more countries than any BM director before him. By oozing knowledge, politeness and wisdom, he charmed the world. The international exhibitions he organised were brilliant essays in cultural diplomacy. By the time he left, even Iran and China were eating out of his hand.

    Achieving that required lots of old-fashioned museum depth. Nicholas, your rebuild of the portrait gallery was a popular success. But the new job is a test of profundity not popularity. Good luck!