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German art historian Hartwig Fischer named British Museum director

25 September 2015

Hartwig Fischer is set to become the director of the British Museum. A report in The Times today claims that Downing Street sources have confirmed that the German will take over from Neil MacGregor, who announced his retirement in April after 13 years in charge of the institution.

Since 2011, Fischer has been the director of the Dresden State Art Collections, a role that involves overseeing 14 museums, the majority housed across six buildings in the city centre. And prior to that, he headed up the Folkwang Museum in Essen, steering through a major expansion that was designed by David Chipperfield and opened in 2010. He is a trained art historian, with a doctorate on the 19th-century German painter Hermann Prell.

For all that he has proven himself in Germany, Fischer’s appointment will come as a surprise to most museum watchers in the UK. He has not, to my knowledge, been named in any of the speculative shortlists produced by the British media; in the last week several sources had suggested to me that Simon Thurley, the former chief executive of English Heritage, was the front runner for the job. Last year, the British Museum ambushed many of us when it unveiled one of the Parthenon Marbles at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. With Fischer’s appointment, it looks to have scooped the chattering classes once again.

The Times speculates that MacGregor’s own interests in Germany may have led the museum’s headhunters towards the country’s cultural institutions. The retiring director is to chair an advisory committee at the Humboldt Forum arts complex, and was responsible last autumn for the acclaimed ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ exhibition at the British Museum. But I suspect they also looked at the example of the V&A, where another German, Martin Roth, has been the director since 2011. Roth was Fischer’s predecessor at the Dresden State Art Collections, and has proved a determined and progressive leader with a genuinely international outlook.

MacGregor has been an unstinting advocate for the type of cultural diplomacy epitomised by the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran in 2010. With major loans now planned for Abu Dhabi and China, any decision that Fischer makes in this sphere will be watched closely, and is bound to be measured against the attitude of his predecessor. But there is also plenty to attend to in Bloomsbury, with many galleries at the British Museum in need of modernisation, and no resolution yet as to the future use of the old Reading Room in the Great Court.

One final observation, for now. Four national museums have seen new directors appointed in the last year: the National Gallery, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain. Three out of four previously had male directors, and now the whole lot do. All are interesting appointments – but it does seem unfortunate, at the very least, that not even one woman has been selected for these top museum jobs.