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British Museum director is Briton of the Year

According to the Times Newspaper, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor is the Briton of the Year. Whilst this may or may not be the case, the articles do seem to take a very similar tone [1] to the sycophantic ones about the museum published in the summer [2].

One also has to put things in perspective – there are some achievements at the museum that can be credited to Neil MacGregor, but many others can not. For example, the Great Court was planned & under construction for many years before he started working there – which also led to reduced visitor figures in the prior period, as the museum felt like a building site much of the time. Similarly, he took over at a time when international visitor figures were severely reduced due to people not wanting to travel after 9-11.

He may have managed to steer the museum down a different route from the one it was taking – but it needs far more changes if it is to become an institution for the twenty-first century.

The Times [3]

December 27, 2008
Briton of the Year: Neil MacGregor
‘Saint’ whose charm and enthusiasm had a curative effect on the British Museum
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Chief Art Critic

Saint Neil is his nickname. And we are blessed to have him. The British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, is far more than just the highly successful administrator of an iconic national establishment. He is a committed idealist who, in a world in which culture is increasingly presented as the acceptable face of politics, has pioneered a broader, more open, more peaceable way forward.

This year we almost lost him. He was being courted to replace Philippe de Montebello as the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It was easy to see why the Americans would covet him. Here was a man who had managed – by what often felt like charm and enthusiasm alone – to turn a financial basket case back into a cultural jewel.

When he took up his post in 2002, the British Museum was £5 million in deficit. Morale was at rock bottom. Visitor numbers had plummeted to less than a million. A third of the galleries were closed and the staff that had not yet been sacked were on strike. Six years later, under MacGregor’s auspices, it has six million visitors a year and heads the list of our cultural attractions, trumping even Blackpool’s time-honoured mass-market mecca, the Pleasure Beach.

Who wouldn’t value a man who could convince the masses that carved lumps of old rock are more worth visiting than the Pepsi Max Big One? But MacGregor stayed in Britain. He declined the Met on principle. It was not a public institution, he said. And he wanted to stay at a museum that was free to everyone. MacGregor, it would appear, is profoundly democratic. Refocusing upon the founding ideals of the institution that was established by Act of Parliament in 1753 as a museum for the world, he has radically redefined the role that it can play in public life.

By emphasising the importance of an international community of inquiry, of a “republic of letters” as it would have been called in its Enlightment roots, he has helped to create a global society that is quite separate from others that constantly get caught up in the squabblings of government and politics.

Through this society he has managed, over the years, to create important cultural links with countries – including, perhaps most notably, China, Iraq and Iran – that have not enjoyed the warmest of political relations with the West.

With shows such asThe First Emperor in which he negotiated the largest loan of the terracotta soldiers from their Sha’anxi mausoleum, he not only brought us some of the world’s most spectacular objects but showed us that these objects were about far more than mere craftsmanship or beauty. They showed us an historical perspective with which we have to engage if we are to understand the modern-day Chinese.

Take the issue of political liberty in China, for example. The First Emperor exhibition was all about the control of the State and that State’s acute sense of its own indivisibility.

This idea of oneness, MacGregor emphasised, persisted against all the odds. And when we see how important and enduring this particular aspect of Chinese culture is it makes it much easier to understand things from the Chinese point of view.

Helping to release the power that lies implicit in the world’s ancient artefacts, MacGregor has turned the British Museum into an arena in which some of our most fraught and contentious contemporary political debates can be approached with a freshened sensitivity and depth of understanding that can surely be a great help in fostering peace.

MacGregor was born in 1946 into a Glaswegian family in which, by tradition, there were only three professions – medicine, the law and the Church. He studied languages at New College, Oxford, and philosophy in Paris – he was out on the streets with his fellow students in 1968 – before settling to retrain for the Scottish Bar.

It must have come as a shock to his parents, both doctors, when he dropped out after five years in favour of taking an MA in art at the Courtauld Institute.

It seems that his deep engagement with artworks – which anyone will recognise from his many television and radio appearances – was awakened when he was very young.

He remembers standing entranced before the eerily astounding Salvador DalÍ image of the Crucifixion that Kelvingrove Gallery first showed in 1952. He bought a postcard and kept it under his bed for years.

And he treasures the thrill of having touched the Rossetta Stone for the first time on that journey through London.

It is this sense of emotional engagement with art that runs like electricity through his career.

MacGregor started lecturing in art history at Reading University in 1975 before moving on to edit the fine arts periodical The Burlington Magazine in 1981. Five years later, he was a highly controversial choice as director of the National Gallery. Having been called in to advise the board of trustees, they were so taken by his learning and conviction that he was offered the job after the leading contender pulled out. He had no experience and the future of the gallery was fraught with problems from leaking roofs to an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease. But MacGregor proved himself not only highly capable but extremely popular. He was, says his successor Charles Saumarez-Smith, “one of the most able, intelligent and intellectually supportive people I have ever known, with an extraordinary ability to get on with people of all sorts”.

It is hard not to be charmed by the slight, dark and handsome director who patrols his museum every morning, familiarising himself with one or other of the seven million items as well as their custodians, whom he invites to weekly breakfast meetings to discuss plans and progress. MacGregor is a man of great erudition, deep spiritual conviction (hisSeeing Salvation show at the National Gallery was stunning), profound personal integrity and a delightfully irreverent giggle.

He appears to have little interest in the trappings of his position. He is the first director not to live in a grand apartment on the premises of the British Museum. He owns few paintings – he was spoilt by his time at the National Gallery, he jokes. He turned down a knighthood, though he does not discuss it. And he appears to find his satisfaction and reward in the simple fulfilment of a civic duty.

But he is also a skilled political mover and a confidant of the former Labour leader Tony Blair. He invited Gordon Brown to open The First Emperorand Boris Johnson, the classicist, to open its successor, Hadrian. An accomplished cultural diplomat – though he hates the term: “diplomat is conventionally taken to mean the promotion of the interests of a particular state and that is not what we are about at all” – he is also a highly skilled media presence.

These charms are as much part of his job as his erudition and passion. This is the man who could work with the Iraqis even during the war, trying to instigate a programme to protect their national treasures, or who managed to coax the Iranians into allowing the museum to stage a huge show about Persia by persuading the hostile President Ahmadinejad to counter all that Ancient Greek propaganda that the Persians were barbarians at the gate.

But perhaps most of all MacGregor is a teacher. His mission is to put across that moving human message that lies within our ancient historical artefacts. He wants to disseminate the wisdom of history. And next year we can look forward to two blockbusting British Museum shows, on Shah Abbas and Montezuma, both of which will explore the creation of national identity. They are about aspects of history with which we must engage if we are to have any hope of understanding the world today.

Saint Neil is clearly a man of faith. And, as far as his career is concerned, his most profound belief is that the British Museum was established for the benefit of all nations.

Curriculum vitae

June 1946 Born in Glasgow
1975-81 Lecturer in art history at the University of Reading
1981-86 Editor of The Burlington Magazine
1986-2002 Director of the National Gallery
2002-date Director of the British Museum

The Times [4]

December 27, 2008
Briton of the Year

Neil MacGregor has not only turned the British Museum into the country’s most popular attraction, he has made it perhaps the best museum in the world

Only a few years ago you would have been offered long odds on the British Museum overtaking Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Tate Modern to become Britain’s most popular attraction. But then this is just the sort of improbable coup that people have come to expect from Neil MacGregor, the British Museum director and architect of its swelling popularity. MacGregor has measured out his life in unlikely triumphs. Go back two decades, and you would probably have been offered even longer odds on MacGregor being lured away from his job editing The Burlington Magazine, a fine arts monthly, to run the National Gallery – given that he had, until then, never spent a day working in a museum.

Yet deploying the lightly worn scholarship, political guile and social flair that would soon become his trademark, MacGregor handsomely rewarded the faith of the National Gallery’s trustees who had hired him as director.

So when the job of running the British Museum fell vacant six years ago, MacGregor was the obvious candidate. Once there, he briskly set about redefining the role and the ambition of what had become a lumbering institution. Today the British Museum can justifiably claim to be perhaps the best museum in the world, a museum that is inventively exploring and flaunting the breadth of its collection. For this, MacGregor deserves much of the applause. Last year the museum drew six million visitors. On one day the crowds queueing to see its Chinese Terracotta Army exhibition grew so long that, for the first time since the Chartist riots of 1848, the museum gates on Great Russell Street had to be shut to prevent more people coming in.

In six brief years, MacGregor has rattled the prejudices of those who dismiss museums as cemeteries of the arts. He has also cemented his status as the museum director’s museum director. For these reasons The Times today chooses him as Briton of the Year.

MacGregor has made the revival of the British Museum’s fortunes look so gracefully effortless that it is easy to underestimate the challenges he inherited. When he took over as director in 2002, morale was low. Staff were picketing over redundancies. The museum’s deficit had bulged to £5 million. But having landed what he has called “the most interesting job in the world”, he began instilling in others the same wonderment for museums that had seduced him on Saturday afternoon visits as a schoolboy in Glasgow. Crowds were infected by MacGregor’s passion.

To MacGregor, the British Museum “remains one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment, an enduring statement that the public realm is intellectual and spiritual as well as physical and economic, and excludes nobody.” He believes, moreover, that this “access to information and knowledge, to the greatest achievements of humanity, must be free to all”.

Little surprise, then, that when he was courted this year to take over as the next director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, MacGregor ruled himself out of the running on the ground that “the Met is not a public museum – whereas the British museum is a public institution and the public museums of London have always been free to everyone”. He takes evident pride in being a public servant. Although he has never discussed his reasons, MacGregor quietly refused a knighthood in 1999.

Neil MacGregor has ensured that the British Museum is not just a venerable but little visited institution, is not just part of an antique cultural landscape, but is vital to the nation’s lifeblood. While other museums may wither, MacGregor has made it impossible to imagine a cultural future for Britain that does not feature the British Museum close to its heart. It is a huge legacy.