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 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. 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 & 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. 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. 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 (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, 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 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
Neil MacGregor announces departure from British Museum
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”.
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