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Neil MacGregor to stand down as Director of British Museum

Neil MacGregor has announced that he is going to stand down as the Director of the British Museum at the end of 2015. During his tenure at the museum, he has definitely raised the profile of the institution, along with his own public standing. He has done a lot of good in broadening the reach of the British Museum, through such things as the History of the World in 100 objects [1] radio series and book.

During his time there, there have been many epic exhibitions, such as the Terracotta Army, although I am sure that while he played a key part, he was far from the only one involved in getting such endeavours off the ground.

However, whatever praise MacGregor might receive should be accompanied by some major caveats.

He is lauded as presiding over a period in which the Museum has risen in popularity, and whilst this is true, it is partly a result of things outside of his control. The Great Court at the Museum is now the iconic space that people remember the building for, but work on it was started well before his arrival and it finally opened a year before he took on the role of director. The previous director presided over a museum that was a building site, with awkward circulation though side corridors, yet the bright spacious museum of the new millennium was not MacGregor’s doing.

In some newspapers, it appears that MacGregor can do no wrong. Even former critics now unquestioningly praise his every move as the work of a genius. I have no idea of the actual arrangements that have been made, but to an outsider it has certain parallels to the embedded reporters accompanying military divisions – you can get the inside stories before anyone else, but only as long as you don’t publish anything negative.

While MacGregor has presented a far more educated approach to the running of the museum than many of his predecessors, with a more rounded global outreach programme, under his control, the museum has always been quick to apply spin to its own actions. Shortly after he took charge of the institution, a highly publicised document appeared – the Declaration of the Importance of the Universal Museum [2]. Many major institutions were present on this list, although the British Museum was notable by is absence. It was clear to many that they were involved in this document, and as it turned out, the declaration fell flat [3] & disappeared from public discourse fairly rapidly.

While the Declaration of the Importance of the Universal Museum might have faded from memory, its legacy is still very much with us. James Cuno continually tries to revive the discredited Universal Museum concept under the alias of the Encyclopaedic Museum [4]. Yet, the whole idea of the Universality of institutions such ass the British Museum is something of a fiction concocted by MacGregor. Prior to MacGregor taking up a post at the British Museum, there are no news stories that mentioned the term Universal Museum, yet it is pushed on us as though it is something that has always existed. It may or may not be a coincidence that its inception followed soon after construction work on the New Acropolis Museum started, removing one of the British Museums previous arguments for retention of the Parthenon Sculptures.

Neil MacGregor receives praise for loaning the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran, yet people are quick to forget that for years leading up to this, it was a source of immense tension [5]. The British Museum had earlier made an agreement to loan the artefact, in reciprocation for earlier loans made by Iran, yet when the time came, they did everything in their power to delay this process and avoid following through with the agreement.

While MacGregor talks a lot about cultural diplomacy and working with other institutions, during his 13 years at the museum, he has not moved even a millimetre closer to resolving the long standing dispute over the Parthenon Marbles. Despite Greece building a state of the Art new museum to house them, MacGregor and his representatives try to claim that such endeavours merely strengthen the case for keeping half of the surviving Marbles in Britain. While other museums [6] (particularly in the USA) have gradually seen that old disputes need to be resolved, the British Museum has continued to respond by burying its head in the sand and pretending that the issue will go away.

The Museums recent actions, of lending one of the Parthenon Sculptures to the Hermitage in St Petersburg received much acclaim in the press, but in reality won little support from others in the museum world. Having previously denied denying a loan of the sculptures to Greece [7], a loan was made in secret to Russia. Once the loan as publicly announced with a multi-page feature in a national newspaper, the British Museum had the audacity to suggest that Greek complaints were ungracious. While once the British Museum claimed that the sculptures were too fragile to move, they are now talking about lending them to institutions around the world – pimping them to everyone except for their rightful owners. Finally, it became clear to many that the museum did not understand the sculptures as a part of a greater whole, something that was designed to be seen together.

Most recently, the British Museum has turned down a request made by Greece [8] for mediation through UNESCO to resolve the Parthenon Marbles dispute. Surely if they were serious about trying to resolve disputes and their position was as strong as they claim it is, they would jumped at the chance to move things forward?

For many who campaign for the return of disputed artefacts, MacGregor’s tenure at the British Museum will be remembered as one of missed opportunities. Of being too blinkered to see the potential advantages of reunifying items with their rightful owners. A rejection of the potential win-win scenario of reciprocal loans of new and unseen works. Of missing out on an increased standing of the institution internationally as old differences were resolved. A failure in cultural decolonisation.

There was (and still is) the potential to reinvent the British Museum as an institution that can provide a moral lead, a new style of museum for the 21st Century, one that can revisit its past in order to create a new, better future. The opportunity has always been there, but MacGregor has never been willing to take it, instead leaving US institutions to take some of the first tentative steps along this path, creating places that exemplify contemporary values rather than the dodgy dealing of times past.

One hopes that perhaps MacGregor’s successor will be able to think different.

British Museum Director Neil MacGregor [9]

British Museum Director Neil MacGregor

Independent [10]

Neil MacGregor announces departure from British Museum
Nick Clark
Wednesday 08 April 2015

Neil MacGregor, who has transformed the fortunes of the British Museum during his 13 year reign, is to leave the UK’s most popular visitor attraction at the end of the year.

The 69-year-old Scot told his colleagues of his decision to step down in December at a meeting. The director received prolonged applause from the staff, according to one onlooker, who said the announcement was “emotional for everybody”.

Mr MacGregor spoke of his time at the British Museum as the “greatest privilege of my professional life” but said it was time to retire from fall time employment.

“The Museum is now ready to embark on a new phase – deploying the collection to present different histories of the world. It is an exhilarating prospect,” he said.

During his time at the museum, which he joined in August 2002, attendance has risen almost 50 per cent and has been the most visited UK attraction for eight years in a row.

Cultural historian Robert Hewison said: “When MacGregor took on the British Museum it was in dire straits and there is no doubt he has used his personal charm relentlessly to make the BM the international institution it is today.”

He has presided over a number of blockbuster exhibsition including Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum in 2013, Vikings: life and legend last year and The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army in 2007.

The museum has just appointed headhunters to find Mr MacGregor’s successor, who will look around the world for candidates.

Artist Grayson Perry, who curated a major exhibition at the museum in 2011, tweeted: “Sad that Neil MacGregor is stepping down at the BM. He is brilliant, a sharp diplomat and most importantly a lovely man.”

The museum’s building also underwent a significant overhaul. Last year, marked the completion of the new building with a bigger exhibition space and new conservation and scientific facilities.

Other projects that boosted Mr MacGregor’s profile, as well as that of the museum, was the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Deputy chairman Bonnie Greer, who Mr MacGregor brought onto the board of trustees in 2005, called him a “great man, great era, great friend”.

There had been rumours that high profile institutions in Germany had wanted to poach the much-admired director, and he revealed he would take an advisory position in the country.

He is to chair an advisory board to make recommendations to Monika Grütters, the German minister of culture on the development of the Humboldt-Forum.

Other positions will include advising the CSMVS Museum and its director Sabyasachi Mukherjee in Mumbai as well as making a new series with the British Museum for Radio 4 on faith and society.

Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum, said Mr MacGregor had made an “outstanding director” and an “extraordinary contribution to public life in the UK and beyond”.

Mr MacGregor studied languages at Oxford, philosophy at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and law in Edinburgh. He studied history of art at the Courtauld Institute of art and edited The Burlington Magazine. He became director of the National Gallery in 1987.

“He was brilliant at the National Gallery, and he was brilliant at the British Museum,” Mr Hewison said.

Mr MacGregor, who has turned down a knighthood, was awarded an Order of Merit in 2010, a personal gift of the Queen for “exceptionally meritorious service” an honour only 24 people hold at any one time.

Art Newspaper [11]

British Museum’s Neil MacGregor will retire on a high
“Extraordinary contribution” praised as director sets sights on Mumbai and Berlin
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 08 April 2015

Neil MacGregor is to retire as director of the British Museum in London. Now 68, he will step down at the end of December, after 13 years in the post. He is likely to be regarded as among the museum’s greatest directors in its 263-year history, particularly because of his success in developing international links and making the collection relevant to the issues of today.

MacGregor told staff on 8 April that he will find it very difficult to leave the museum, saying that working there has been “the greatest privilege of my professional life”. He added: “I’ve decided that now is the time to retire from full-time employment and the end of this year seems a good time to go.” Among the museum’s recent achievements is last year’s opening of a new extension, which includes a temporary exhibition gallery (currently with a show on Greek sculpture, until 5 July), vast storage facilities and conservation studios. Visitor numbers have been rising, reaching a record 6.7 million last year (making it the world’s second most popular museum after the Louvre). These achievements have been made against a background of severe cuts in government funding.

On his retirement, MacGregor plans to work on three projects. He will present a BBC Radio 4 series on “Faith and Society”. He plans to advise on displays at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) Museum in Mumbai, which he describes as “one of the finest and most active museums in South/Southeast Asia”. Most importantly, he will chair an advisory board to make recommendations to the German minister of culture, Monika Grütters, on how Berlin’s Humboldt-Forum should present world cultures.

Richard Lambert, who took over as the museum’s chairman last July, paid tribute to MacGregor’s “extraordinary contribution”. The trustees have now started the process of looking for a successor for what he says will be “one of the best and most challenging jobs of its kind in the world”. The search for the right candidate will be international.

Guardian [12]

British Museum director Neil MacGregor to step down
Mark Brown and Damien Gayle
Wednesday 8 April 2015 18.03 BST

Art historian who was behind BBC radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects tells staff he will leave in December

Neil MacGregor is to step down as director of the British Museum at the end of the year.

MacGregor, one of the most respected museum leaders in the world, broke the news at an emotional staff meeting on Wednesday morning, telling about 200 people that his 13 years at the museum had been “the greatest privilege of my professional life”.

The announcement had been on the cards for some time, not least because MacGregor is 68. The £135m transformation of the museum that he has overseen, bringing a new conservation and exhibitions centre, is also now complete.

MacGregor said he planned to retire from full-time employment, but would have a number of prominent part-time jobs, including presenting a new series on religion for BBC radio and chairing a committee advising on one of Germany’s most important cultural projects, the Humboldt Forum arts complex. Contrary to some reports, he will not become director.

The time felt right to go, said MacGregor, although leaving was “a very difficult thing”.

He added: “The new building has been completed, so we at last have proper exhibition space, new conservation and scientific facilities, and first-class accommodation for our growing research activities. We have built strong partnerships with fellow museums across the UK, and are rapidly expanding our programme of loans and training around the world. The museum is now ready to embark on a new phase.”

MacGregor is a familiar TV face and radio voice, far better known than any of his predecessors. One of his most popular series was A History of the World in 100 Objects on Radio 4 in 2010.

Few people would be surprised if the BBC were to announce MacGregor as the new presenter of its proposed remake of Civilisation, although he denied having any conversations about it when asked in an interview in December.

Before he joined the British Museum, MacGregor was in charge of the National Gallery, where he presided over the Sainsbury wing extension and earned the nickname Saint Neil among staff – partly because of his Christianity, but also because of his popularity.
A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor – review
Neil MacGregor illuminates the human story and rehabilitates the British Museum in the process, says Tom Holland
Read more

MacGregor, who is from Glasgow, will go down as one of the greatest directors the 263-year-old British Museum has had. He has overseen a golden period, introducing innovation and dynamism and, perhaps above all, relevance into what was a somewhat old-fashioned institution. Visitor numbers have increased from 4.6m in 2002-03 to 6.7m in 2014-15, making it the second-most visited museum in the world after the Louvre in Paris.

He has championed the British Museum as a “world museum” and steadfastly resisted Greek pressure for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned.

MacGregor makes no secret of his passion for Germany and was the driving force behind the museum’s show last year, Germany: Memories of a Nation, which was accompanied by a Radio 4 series.

He was vigorously courted by the German government to be the man in charge of the Humboldt Forum, an arts centre being constructed in Berlin. Instead, he will chair a committee that will make recommendations to the German culture minister, Monika Grütters, “on how the Humboldt­ Forum, drawing on the outstanding resources of the Berlin collections, can become a place where different narratives of world cultures can be explored and debated”.

Grütters said: “I am immensely grateful and more than happy that Neil MacGregor, with his wide-­ranging experience of world cultures and his deep knowledge of Germany, will support us in making our most ambitious cultural project happen.

“I am convinced that with his skill in presenting global narratives and his persuasive powers and determination, he will help shape the Humboldt­ Forum as a successful institution with an ambitious programme that best serves the public in Berlin, Germany and internationally.”

MacGregor will also consult on another “presentation of world cultures” project in Mumbai.

The museum plans to employ headhunters to help find a new director. His departure is another sign of the guards being changed in the top echelons of Britain’s major museums and galleries, with Gabriele Finaldi replacing Nicholas Penny at the National Gallery and Nicholas Cullinan replacing Sandy Nairne at the National Portrait Gallery.

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, paid tribute, saying: “Neil MacGregor has led two national museums with distinction over a period of nearly 30 years. His achievements at the National Gallery have been matchless. His leadership has enhanced the standing of all museums and their place in contemporary British life.”

The artist Grayson Perry tweeted: “Sad that Neil Macgregor is stepping down at the BM. He is brilliant, a sharp diplomat and most importantly a lovely man.”

The chairman of the British Museum’s trustees, Sir Richard Lambert, said MacGregor had been “an outstanding director of the British Museum and has made an extraordinary contribution to public life in the UK and beyond”.

He added: “The trustees are hugely grateful for everything he has done to bring the collection to life, and to tell its many different stories. We respect his decision to move on, and want to support him in his new projects.”

MacGregor, who turned down a knighthood in 1999, will be a difficult act to follow. The artist Sir Antony Gormley, writing in the Evening Standard, called MacGregor “the spokesperson for the silent throng of things made by the human hand, heart and brain over all time.

“Like no other before him, he has helped us see, empathise and interpret the huge diversity of humanly made things, allowing us to understand what they are and the world from which they come.”

As a young man, MacGregor read history of art at the Courtauld Institute where his tutor, the spy Anthony Blunt, called him “the most brilliant student I have ever taught”. Before the National Gallery he edited the Burlington Magazine.
Who will succeed MacGregor?

Finding a worthy successor for the departing director will be a huge and difficult task. In the frame might be:

• Simon Thurley Chief executive of English Heritage since 2002 with experience running a museum (the Museum of London) before that. Brilliantly clever with a flair for publicity that is rare in academics, he is a leading contender.

• Diane Lees Director general of the Imperial War Museums since 2008 and overseeing the redevelopment of its flagship venue in London. After 263 years, surely it is time for a woman to be in charge of the BM?

• Thomas Campbell As director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York he might think he already has the best job in the world. But might the Englishman be homesick and ready for a new challenge? He has been at the Met since 1995 and in charge since 2009.

• Luke Syson The British curator of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Met was shortlisted for the National Gallery job. He missed out to the hot favourite Gabriele Finaldi but no one doubts Syson’s great skills as a curator and communicator. Syson was part of the team that created the BM’s Enlightenment Gallery.

• Joanna Mackle Might the trustees look internally? Mackle is one of four deputies at the British Museum, with responsibility for public engagement.