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The week in art news – Stonehenge road tunnel ruled unlawful, but plans still going ahead

Plus: More than 17,000 looted artefacts returned to Iraq | Timothy Rub to step down as director of Philadelphia Museum of Art | Wildfires in Greece and Turkey continue, threatening ancient sites | Art Institute of Chicago and Guggenheim staff move to unionise

6 August 2021

Plans for a road tunnel for the A303 motorway near Stonehenge are moving forward, says Highways England, despite a court judgement last Friday that ruled the scheme unlawful. Campaigners took the transport secretary’s decision to approve the scheme to judicial review, arguing that the road tunnel would cause ‘irreparable damage’ to the World Heritage Site. The High Court ruling found that the Department for Transport did not gather sufficient evidence about impact on individual heritage assets or give sufficient consideration to alternative schemes. On Wednesday, David Bullock of Highways England said that, while the government considers its options, plans for early preparatory work have been paused, but ‘the procurement process is very much live to ensure we maintain programme timescales’.

More than 17,000 artefacts looted from Iraq since the invasion of 2003 have been returned by the United States and other countries. The announcement was made in a joint press conference by the Iraqi foreign minister Fuad Hussein and culture minister Hasan Nadhim, who described it as ‘the largest in the history of Iraq’. Among the objects returned is a 3,500-year-old cuneiform tablet known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which was seized by US authorities in 2019 after being acquired by Hobby Lobby for display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

Timothy Rub, director and chief executive of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), is stepping down from his post at the beginning of next year. Rub, who was previously director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, joined the PMA in 2009; during his tenure, he has overseen Frank Gehry’s ambitious master plan for the museum, with the latest phase of renovations unveiled this spring. Rub has also been criticised for his leadership, particularly in the past 18 months, over staff cuts and the handling of employee unionisation efforts, as well as the handling of allegations of sexual harassment made against a senior member of staff.

Opening hours at the Acropolis have been reduced due to the heat, with record temperatures recorded this week in both Greece and Turkey. The site in Athens, which is usually open to the public in the summer from 8am to 8pm, is now closed daily between 12pm and 5pm. There have been extreme wildfires in Greece, Turkey and other areas of southern Europe, causing thousands to evacuate their homes. On Thursday one blaze broke out just a kilometre from the archaeological site of Olympia, although it was brought under control before causing any damage to the ancient landmark.

Employees at the Art Institute of Chicago have moved to form a union. Art Institute of Chicago Workers United published an open letter on Tuesday that was signed by 60 members of staff at the museum, in which they stated their intention to join the Illinois state chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. ‘Though concerns about wages, workloads, and working conditions are not new to the Art Institute,’ the letter stated, ‘the financial and social uncertainties of the past year have brought these issues to a head.’ Last week staff at the Guggenheim in New York announced their intentions to form a second union made up of curators, conservators and other employees (the museum’s art handlers and facilities staff unionised two years ago).

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