British Museum has appointed Dr Nicholas Cullinan OBE as the new Director following the unanimous approval of the Board of Trustees and the agreement of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Via an official statement, 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.

He added, “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.”

Dr. Cullinan assumes the role of Sir Mark Jones, who served as Interim Director after Hartwig Fischer’s resignation due to the thefts at the London-based institution.

A New Era Begins: Dr Nicholas Cullinan Leads British Museum Forward

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, one of the UK’s renowned and experienced museum directors, has successfully led the National Portrait Gallery since April 2015.

During his time at the National Portrait Gallery, Dr Cullinan led the most significant transformation in the Gallery’s history since its building opened in 1896. 

He successfully oversaw a complete re-presentation of the Collection and implemented significant redevelopment of the building, expanding public space by one-fifth.

He also initiated an innovative international collaboration with Getty to co-acquire Portrait of Mai (c. 1776) by Sir Joshua Reynolds – the largest acquisition in the Gallery’s history and that the UK has ever made. 

Portrait of Mai (Omai), c. 1776, image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London and Getty
Portrait of Mai Omai c 1776 Image Source National Portrait Gallery London and Getty


Before that, he worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Tate Modern in London as a curator, bringing an international perspective to his approach. 

Notably, he co-curated an exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs with Sir Nicholas Serota in 2014. It is the most popular exhibition in Tate’s history and the first to receive more than half a million visitors.

The Stolen Artefacts Scandal 

In August 2023, the British Museum revealed the discovery of missing and damaged items in its collection, prompting an independent security review. 

Consequently, the institution also terminated a staff member suspected of stealing collection items, primarily Ancient Greek and Roman jewellery, and gems stored within a designated storage area. They include gold jewellery and gems of semiprecious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. 

Roman sard intaglio, engraved with the divine couple Serapis and Isis, and a female figure holding a sistrum (a ritual rattle), mounted on a modern gold setting, 1st-3rd Century AD.
One of the missing items is a Roman sard intaglio engraved with the divine couple Serapis and Isis and a female figure holding a sistrum a ritual rattle mounted on a modern gold setting 1st 3rd Century AD Image Source British Museum

The widely reported incident resulted in the resignation of Director Hartwig Fischer and Deputy Director Jonathan Williams.

The museum also sued former Senior Curator Dr Peter Higgs, alleging that he stole artefacts from its Collections and distributed them to dozens of buyers over ten years.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the London museum’s trustees say there is “compelling evidence” that Dr Higgs “abused his position of trust” between at least July 2009 and January 2018.

It is alleged that hundreds of the items that were absent were listed for sale on eBay, with PayPal utilised for transaction facilitation. The court proceedings revealed earlier this month that, thus far, 356 stolen items have been recovered.

This scandal, which shook the foundations of the museum world, underscored the urgent need for decisive action and visionary leadership. 

Therefore, Dr. Cullinan’s appointment signals a commitment to addressing systemic challenges and implementing robust security measures to prevent future incidents.

On top of that, this appointment is a strategic move that aims to rebuild trust as cultural heritage institutions face growing scrutiny over how they protect invaluable treasures.

Reimagining the British Museum

Dr Nicholas Cullinan is the new Director of British Museum
Image Source National Portrait GalleryChris Floyd via The Times

The poaching of Dr Cullinan from the National Portrait Gallery reflects the British Museum’s determination to recruit top talent and introduce fresh perspectives to its leadership team. 

His appointment has received widespread commendation from the cultural community, with many lauding it as a positive step towards rebuilding public trust.

As Dr. Cullinan assumes his position, he faces a daunting but transformative challenge. The road ahead will require unwavering dedication, strategic foresight, and a commitment to fostering a culture of integrity and accountability.

Amidst the stolen artefacts scandal, the British Museum stands at a crossroads, poised to redefine its role as a custodian of global heritage. With Dr. Nicholas Cullinan at the helm, there is renewed optimism that the museum will emerge stronger and more resilient, ready to write a new chapter in its storied history.

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