As part of an interview in the Guardian today, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor discusses why he feels that the Parthenon Marbles should remain in Britain. He argues that they are a part of a story that is not just a national one for the Greeks – this may well be the case, but surely it is still an international story that has more relevance for the Greeks than it does for anyone else? Moreover, wouldn’t the story make more sense if it was all in one place rather than split in half?
The Guardian 
A private view
Stuart Jeffries meets British Museum director Neil MacGregor
Saturday October 22, 2005
Neil MacGregor gives the lie to Richard Sennett’s argument in The Fall of Public Man that those in public office nowadays are taken to be honest only if they are prepared to tell everyone their every peccadillo. Competence in public office is, Sennett argues, measured by incontinent disclosure rather than by being good at what you do.
MacGregor, director, of the British Museum, insists he is different. “One’s private life is so tragically uninteresting,” he wails in his office, in the museum’s west wing, when pressed on this. “You might imagine that there is this whole pulsating, scabrous existence going on that is kept from the public gaze.” It would make my job easier if you could pony up something lurid sharpish. “Sadly it’s not very interesting, but that’s another saga. The role of the director of a national museum is to be a public servant. There’s a great danger of confusing this with elected office. I’m paid by the public to do a public job, and the job should be scrutinised. It does sound awfully prissy, but I believe in it.”
MacGregor’s story is of the rise of the public man at a time when that character’s obituary had been prematurely written. As a public servant, he has revivified the British Museum, making it appreciated anew as what he calls, in Ben Okri’s words, the “memory of mankind”. He has made a museum stuffed with artefacts plundered from less rapacious cultures (Benin, in particular, would like its bronzes back) feel good in our post-imperial age, which is no mean feat.
Like the fictional occupant of another west wing, he has given the British Museum a renewed sense of principled mission. Which doesn’t mean the Parthenon marbles are going to be repatriated any time soon, but rather that he is confident enough to defend, out of principle, keeping them in London rather than conceding they are the exclusive patrimony of the Greek people.
“The Parthenon sculptures are,” he argues, “part of a story that is not just national.” This will exasperate those who contend something more must be done for Greek pride than placate it – as MacGregor has suggested – with a virtual reality exhibition in Athens showing what the sculptures would look like back on the Parthenon. That said, if he woke up tomorrow morning convinced otherwise, you wouldn’t expect him to ruin his career by Fedexing the marbles back pronto. Not on his watch.
MacGregor took over an institution in dire financial straits. In January 2002, the departing chief executive, Suzanna Taverne, lambasted the government for in effect cutting the museum’s budget by a third in a decade, leaving it £3m in debt and compelling it to open 23 of its galleries for only three-and-a-half hours a day. Worse, the museum seemed to have lost its sense of purpose. Instead, it seemed to be reduced to guff such as Agatha Christie and Archaeology, the 2002 show dismissed in this paper as “crap”. It was showcasing a writer’s hobby, when it should have been finessing the vision of its founder, the physician Sir Hans Sloane, of providing a great storehouse of knowledge.
MacGregor arrived at a fraught moment in the summer of 2002. The aftermath of 9/11 had seen visitor figures drop alarmingly, the British Library had been recently hived off to a new building in St Pancras (a disruptive process he describes as akin to “having the house rewired for 15 years”) and the museum’s 250th anniversary was only a year away. MacGregor sought to celebrate that anniversary by self-consciously returning the museum to the founding principles that parliament set for it in 1753: “to allow visitors to address through objects, both ancient and more recent, questions of contemporary politics and international relations.” This was appealing to someone whose father steeled him, while touring dissolute London, in the Scottish enlightenment values of education and self-improvement.
Emblematic of the new idealistic British Museum is the first exhibition in the Wellcome Trust gallery, using the collections of the museum to dramatise how differently peoples around the world deal with the issue of death. This is the great theme of MacGregor’s administration: to make us understand, not just strange ancient civilisations, but ourselves.
The museum’s first principles, he argues, were “all about Locke’s civic humanism, which means that knowledge is to have a civic outcome. Museums, including this one, retreated from that 18th-century ethos and became cloistral like monasteries.” As someone raised in Scotland to regard museums as tools for education and servants of civic ends, such hermeticism was improper.
As MacGregor walks me through the new exhibition – Forgotten Empire: the World of Ancient Persia – I get a sense that the museum has got its intellectual mojo and purpose back. Here is a demanding show that argues plausibly for the importance of a civilisation destroyed by fire at Persepolis by Alexander the Great. “The museum should be like Gulliver’s Travels,” he maintains, “in that it takes you on a decentring voyage.” Exposing visitors to sophisticated cultures that thrived in lands now regarded widely by philistine westerners as dust bowls of barbarism, noteworthy only for oil and terror, is not just defensible but surely imperative.
MacGregor tells me that, among a series of African-based curating initiatives sponsored under his directorship, the museum has been working with a curator from the Kenyan National Museum to mount an exhibition in Nairobi of Kenyan artefacts from the British Museum’s collection. A fine notion, but wouldn’t it be a good thing if that African-curated show finally appeared here? Wouldn’t that sort of show help make us all better, humbler Gullivers? Diplomatically, MacGregor doesn’t exclude the possibility.
But then he is good at diplomacy. This is someone who has managed to put the museum’s finances on an even keel, arguably because he has the ear of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. For example, when in 2003 he wanted money for African projects, he knew what to do. “I went to the PM and asked if as a birthday present the government would give us money to work in Africa for Africans to work in the UK.” The result is a series of links between Bloomsbury and several African museums.
But that diplomacy mostly involves tactful negotiation with foreign governments. The Persia show was the product of meetings and exchanges with Tehran. Loans from Tehran were matched by an undertaking that one of the exhibition’s leading artefacts – the Cyrus cylinder, hailed in Iran as the first declaration of human rights – would be loaned by the British Museum. All that work nearly came unstuck when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s new government worried that some exhibits were too iconic to warrant loan, but 11th-hour renegotiations ensured that most of the loans went ahead.
MacGregor is still negotiating a deal with the Chinese that might result in some of the Terracotta Army being displayed in Bloomsbury. “It’s too early to say whether that will happen, though we have made a start in terms of curatorial exchanges.” Beijing, hungry to represent non-Chinese cultures in its museums, will stage a series of loan exhibitions later this decade with the British Museum’s help.
Such loans of artefacts are, he says, more possible now than ever. “We have become more aware that transport and conservation advances over the last 30 years have given us a new position.” By which he means that the museum’s “memory of mankind” can now reach parts his predecessors never dreamed of reaching – millions of Americans saw a touring exhibition of its Egyptian artefacts last year, for example.
MacGregor is an optimistic director, one who believes his visitors are capable of learning the Swiftian message of his museum, namely how strange we are. He is unlike, say, Henri Loyrette, the director of the Louvre, who told a museum conference in 2003 that “most of our displays mean nothing to people”. It is inconceivable that MacGregor could utter such words, as his whole stewardship is premised on a faith in transforming his visitors’ cultural mindsets. Whether he is right to have such faith, at a time when insularity is rampant, is another matter.
Neil MacGregor’s choice of British Museum treasures
- Bronze head with beaded crown and plume. Yoruba, probably 12th-14th century AD. From Ife, Nigeria
- The Dying Lion, a stone panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal. Nineveh, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, around 645BC
- Turquoise mosaic of a double-headed serpent. Aztec/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD. From Mexico
- Head of a horse of Selene from the east pediment of the Parthenon Acropolis, Athens, 447-432 BC
- Cornfield by Moonlight, with Evening Star c1830. Samuel Palmer (1805-81). Watercolour and gouache with brown ink, varnished
You can find out more at www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk