With the publicity of the new television series about the British Museum, the Guardian has compiled a profile of Neil MacGregor, it’s director. It also looks at the growing politicization of the museum – the spinning of stories & the marketing of the brand as a move away from the academic institution it was once seen as.
The Guardian 
The Guardian profile: Neil MacGregor
‘He has not only transformed the public’s view of what the British Museum is for, but also the view of the politicians’
BBC goes behind the scenes with the man who turned an institution around
Friday May 11, 2007
In 1952 Glasgow council did something extraordinary: it bought an enormous crucifixion by Salvador Dali, and changed a small boy’s life. The city flocked to see it, including the schoolboy Neil MacGregor. He was transfixed; he bought a postcard and kept it by his bed for years. It turned him from a career in law, or medicine like his parents, towards art history and museums.
From last night and for 10 weeks, BBC viewers will follow the dramas and intrigues of The Museum, an institution the size of a substantial village, and the mayor who paces its streets first thing each morning, British Museum director Neil MacGregor. They will see a man regarded by his peers as high-minded to a fault, passionate about cultural history – and the most politically savvy museum director in the game.
Charles Saumarez Smith, his successor at the National Gallery, called him “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.”
Or “the Bloomsbury spin machine,” as Javier Pes, editor of the journal Museum Practice, calls him. Whether dealing with visiting politicians, viewers, journalists, or millionaire donors, MacGregor has a remarkable ability to make the person addressed feel infinitely more intelligent than usual: it’s genuine, but a most useful gift.
Lord Redesdale, head of the all-party parliamentary archaeology group, said: “When he took over, it was in the firing line, seen as old-fashioned, isolationist, clearly lined up for more cuts. By treading a very clever political line, he has completely turned that around, so it is now a highly favoured institution.”
Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association, said: “He’s managed a very sophisticated balancing act between pleasing the public and pleasing the politicians, and still being seen as a world player.”
In 1986 MacGregor was a controversial choice at the National Gallery, an outsider – from the Burlington Magazine – who had never worked a day in a museum. However, he shone there, and proved a television natural.
In 2002, when he left for the British Museum, morale there was on the floor. The deficit was soaring towards £5m, staff picketed the building over redundancies, and in the week he started, a marble head was stolen from one of many temporarily closed galleries.
Although many problems remain – and even he can’t finesse away the problem of the Parthenon marbles – the British Museum is now visibly proud of itself. A rolling re-display is transforming galleries, spectacular acquisitions have come in, and links have been forged through loans and touring exhibitions with museums from Gateshead to Tehran and Beijing.
The aftermath of the Iraq war, and the cataclysm facing Iraq’s cultural heritage, proved his greatest opportunity. As bombs were still falling, MacGregor and his department head, John Curtis, were on the phone to Baghdad; the museum has since led the world in offering help, advice and support.
“On the whole, I think he’s really been very good for the place,” said Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities archaeology finds scheme. “What he’s done is given everybody working in the museum a sense of purpose, which we certainly didn’t have before. At the same time, he has transformed the public’s view of what this museum is for – and the view of politicians.”
Maurice Davies wonders if sometimes the result isn’t a little joyless – but Lord Redesdale and two children spent last Saturday there, mainly riding up and down in the lift to the spectacular view from the Great Court pediment.
The museum celebrated its 250th anniversary four years ago with a riotous children’s party. MacGregor presided over a birthday tea complete with jelly and ice cream. Up to the laces of his brogues in cocktail sausages and fairy cakes, beaming from ear to ear, he demanded: “Isn’t this absolutely wonderful? It should be like this every day.”
Born June 16 1946 in Glasgow, to doctors Alexander and Anna
Education Glasgow Academy; New College Oxford (languages); Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris (philosophy); Edinburgh University (law); MA, Courtauld Institute of Art
Career Lecturer in art history, Reading University, 1975-81; editor, Burlington Magazine, 1981-87; National Gallery director, 1987-2002; British Museum director, 2002-
Honours Member of RSA and international advisory board of Hermitage Museum; trustee of Pilgrim Trust and Courtauld Institute of Art; honorary doctorates from nine universities; honorary fellow of New College Oxford; turned down knighthood in 1999