- Elginism - http://www.elginism.com -

The greatest museum on earth

The British Museum is currently riding high on a wave of optimism created by rising visitor figures, James Cuno’s book [1] & the news that MacGregor will stay for a further four years [2]. The opening of the New Acropolis Museum later this year [3] though & the unrelenting moral arguments for the return artefacts will still remain as issues that the museum has to confront well after the time when these current issues have become old news.

The Times [4]

From The Times
July 9, 2008
Is the British Museum the greatest museum on earth?
It is Britain’s top cultural attraction, a great new exhibition is on the way and its director is not off to the Met in New York after all
Damian Whitworth

In an age when it can feel as if trash is about to breach the levees and flood the entire cultural landscape, two announcements have offered evidence of the surprising healthiness of the nation’s appetite for the highbrow.

The first was that the British Museum has overtaken Blackpool Pleasure Beach to become Britain’s most popular cultural attraction. In the past year 6.04 million visitors crossed the threshold, trumping Blackpool on 5.5 million and Tate Modern with 5.23 million.

The second piece of news was even more important for staff at the museum and those who care about its fortunes. Neil MacGregor, the director and the man who has overseen the transformation of its fortunes, confirmed that he would not be leaving to head the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Such a move had been widely feared. For more than a year there were rumours that he would leave to replace Phillippe de Montebello, who is retiring from the Met. MacGregor insisted that he already had “the most interesting job in the world” but doubts persisted, especially once the American media started pressing him. He declined to comment and the saga began to look like the museum equivalent of Real Madrid and Manchester United’s tug of love over Cristiano Ronaldo.

That he has opted to stay shows that he really does believe he has the best job in the museum world, presiding over the most extensive collection in an institution that is staging the most interesting exhibitions, in Britain and globally. To some it is also a sign of the strength of interest in our cultural heritage.

Melvyn Bragg, whose meaty programme about history and ideas, In Our Time, has become required listening and one of Radio 4’s greatest hits, describes as “received ignorance” the idea that we are surrounded by trash culture. “We are not dumbing down; we are going in the opposite direction,” he says. “Tate Modern gets more visitors than go to the Emirates to see Arsenal in a season. There’s a change in the culture.”

The historian Andrew Roberts says simply that MacGregor is a genius: “He has the intelligence and the wit and a feel for the big – the big historical themes, and getting things that are big. He has an ambition for the museum that is very attractive.”

For the First Emperor exhibition MacGregor negotiated to bring over the largest collection of terracotta soldiers from the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi to leave China. That attracted more than 850,000 people and many others had to be turned away, despite viewings until midnight. During a day of events to mark Chinese new year, the crush was so intense that the gates to the museum had to be shut. That afternoon, as harassed staff tried to corral the crowds, I bumped into MacGregor in a corridor, looking thrilled if a little stunned.

This month Hadrian: Empire and Conflict arrives in the Reading Room where the warriors were such a draw. Some 12,000 advance tickets have already been sold. Even small exhibitions are doing unprecedented business, such as American Scene, a display of prints that has attracted 170,000 visitors. MacGregor says that eclipsing Blackpool is astonishing and very pleasing: “It must mean we are attracting many new people, and a lot of people who haven’t been in a museum since they were much younger and are rediscovering it.”

Bragg, who was in the museum last Saturday “to catch up with the Elgin Marbles”, says that he loves the easiness of being in the Great Court under the roof designed by Norman Foster. “It was heaving, like walking against the tide, on Oxford Street but I didn’t find that at all worrying. There were a lot of young people and a feeling of excitement. Neil has the touch, the imagination and flair.” The Hadrian exhibition is perfect timing, he says. “We are all talking about boundaries and empires and walls all over the place now.” Some commentators have criticised the blockbuster approach to exhibitions, but Bragg says that The First Emperor was “very well done. They are not dumbing down.”

When MacGregor moved from the National Gallery to Bloomsbury in 2002 the museum had a dusty image, was carrying a £5 million deficit and unhappy staff had gone on strike for the first time over proposed cuts. MacGregor had to make the redundancies, then set about restoring morale. He did so by becoming intimately familiar with the work of staff throughout the museum, inviting them to weekly breakfast meetings where they could chew over the wider work of the museum.

He dislikes hearing his project called a rebranding, preferring “refocusing on the founding ideals”.

The museum was a creation of the Enlightenment, founded in 1753 by Parliament. It was meant to be a museum for the world – and MacGregor has pushed that hard. “Mini-British Museums”, or small touring exhibitions, are sent far and wide and, in return, treasures from other museums are leant to the British Museum to complement its collections in exhibitions.

MacGregor believes passionately that such cultural diplomacy can bring nations together by enhancing wider understanding of a country beyond modern-day politics. Museums have a mission to help us to understand ourselves. A great exhibition should make us “a little more questioning and uncertain” about our society. “As well as being interesting in themselves, the collections raise questions about us and about now.”

It is MacGregor’s eye for an exhibition with modern resonances that has made the British Museum such a storming success. The First Emperor got in early on the China boom that has preceded the Olympics and introduced a towering historical figure of whom most of us had never heard; a man who united modern China, lending his name to a country that has lasted until today.

Hadrian will feature a huge number of objects borrowed from Italy and around the world, as well as artefacts from the museum’s own collections, to tell the story of a man known to most of us only because of the wall that he constructed from the Tyne to the Solway to mark the northernmost boundary of his empire.

When MacGregor was looking around for an exhibition to follow the terracotta warriors into the Reading Room, Hadrian seemed ideal. He wanted a figure who was still the subject of continuing archaeological discovery, whose story is being rewritten, who had a lasting impact politically and culturally. Hadrian will be followed by exhibitions about Shah Abbas the Great, the Persian ruler, and Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor at the start of the Spanish Conquest. Examining these reigns will, says MacGregor, “explore history that most of us don’t know and raise key questions about the exercise of power, what you need to run an empire – what it means to exercise power over hundreds of millions of people”.

MacGregor is a skilled political operator, a confidant of Tony Blair, who invited Gordon Brown to open the First Emperor exhibition and has secured Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London and a classicist, to open the Hadrian exhibition.

The director is also a polished cultural diplomat and media performer. Next year he will present a history of the world through 100 objects for Radio 4. But more than any of those roles he is a teacher – the BM’s headmaster. He has little interest in the trappings of the position. He became the first director not to live in an apartment on the premises, owns few paintings himself and turned down a knighthood – an episode that he declines to discuss. Friends say that he sees the job as reward enough, and as a civic duty.

Sceptics have reasoned that the visitor figures are meaningless because the British Museum is free and some other museums and galleries cannot compete because they charge. “They might be people getting out of the rain,” says one commentator. But it seems likely that they will keep flocking. In 2012 a new development in the north west of the museum site will provide bigger space for exhibitions and new research laboratories.

Although MacGregor is too discreet to discuss any dealings that he had with the Met, it is understood that he made it clear from the beginning that he would be staying in London and discussions never reached the stage of the job being offered. The Met has an enormous amount of private money behind it, but MacGregor is wedded to what he calls “a great public institution for the world”. What the British Museum can do in terms of taking its vast collections to that global audience is, he says, “limitless”.

War, politics and oil: sound familiar?

A charismatic young political star becomes the leader of the Western world. Faced with turmoil in the Middle East, he decides that his predecessor has been guilty of imperial overreach and decides to pull his troops out of Iraq. A brutal military leader and a sophisticated aesthete, a clever political operator and an unhappily married gay man, Hadrian was an enigma. Emperor of Rome from AD117 to 138, he fits perfectly into the British Museum’s mission to explain fascinating historical figures whose lives resonate today.

It wasn’t just in Mesopotamia that Hadrian faced problems. There was turmoil in Judaea. The Jews revolted against Rome and Hadrian responded by mercilessly crushing the insurrection, killing almost 600,000 of the local population. To Neil MacGregor, Hadrian’s behaviour there poses uncomfortable questions for a modern museum visitor. “We are not used to thinking that brutality is a price of stability. We have lost the habit of thinking in politics that sometimes stability is built at the price of repression. That doesn’t mean butchery leads to stability.”

Bringing proper peace to Palestine eluded Hadrian, as it has many others for almost two millennia. “Hadrian’s achievement was to establish a stable and prosperous empire that lasts for a long time,” says MacGregor. But “the one problem he never really resolved was Palestine”.

His brilliance as a political strategist was nowhere clearer than in his dealings with the recalcitrant Greeks. He has always been depicted as philhellenic, but this exhibition suggests that his enthusiasm for Greek culture was more pragmatic. Expressing his passion so strongly that he was called “the Little Greek” was “like Kennedy saying, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’,” says MacGregor. Or “the equivalent of George Bush speaking Arabic or writing Arabic poetry. The brilliance of his achievement was to make Greeks feel like Romans and defend and protect the Roman empire; they are part of the great imperial enterprise. This is their empire.” In effect, the eastern Roman empire, the Byzantine empire that would last until the sacking of Constantinople in 1453, begins with Hadrian. “The amazing political coup of making them feel responsible for the Roman empire works for 1,300 years.”

The Greek love of his life was a young man in his entourage called Antinous. In Ancient Rome their relationship would have caused hardly a raised eyebrow. But Antinous’s mysterious death in the Nile caused Hadrian such shattering grief that he showered his dead lover with honours and constructed numerous monuments to his memory, fuelling a posthumous cult of Antinous. Travelling with MacGregor and a team from

the British Museum to Italy as they prepare for the exhibition, it becomes clear how hard it is to understate Hadrian’s contribution to Western art. Tivoli, his summer palace in the foothills of the Tiburtine mountains outside Rome, was the largest imperial palace that we know of. It had some 900 rooms, stuffed with sculpture, its walls encrusted with frescoes and paintings. Much was plundered and destroyed but much survives and fabulous sculptures, including a bust of Hadrian and a playful satyr in red stone that was a favourite of visitors on the Grand Tour, will feature in the exhibition.

The Pantheon, still hulking in the centre of Rome, is one of the world’s most iconic buildings. The version we see was mostly created under Hadrian. A structure to humble any human, it has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. From this engineering masterpiece numerous other great buildings, including Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, the roofs of many of the great mosques and even the British Museum’s Reading Room, are descended.

Success in politics has always required financial muscle. To demonstrate this MacGregor led his team scrambling to the top of a substantial, overgrown hill in Rome composed of 25 million broken amphorae. Then, as now, politicians were obsessed by oil. For Hadrian that was olive oil. Hadrian’s family was from Spain and they had amassed a fortune in olive oil that contributed to the amphorae mountain. To Hadrian’s clan, olive oil was “what the stock market was to Joseph Kennedy”, MacGregor says.