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British Museum director to become Cultural Envoy

Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum has been appointed by the British government as the country’s first Cultural Envoy. MacGregor wants to co-operate with other countries (such as China [1]), but only when any co-operation or collaboration happens on his own terms.

The Times [2]

From The Sunday Times
December 30, 2007
Britain to woo world with first cultural envoy
Marie Woolf, Whitehall Editor

THE director of the British Museum, responsible for bringing China’s terracotta warriors to the UK, is to be appointed the government’s first “cultural ambassador”.

Neil MacGregor will be given a £3m budget by James Purnell, the culture secretary, to promote a new programme called World Collections, intended to increase the profile of British museums and galleries around the world and to bring more exhibitions to Britain from abroad.

The programme will also offer expert help from curators in Britain, who will be sent abroad to give advice and training in the latest display and preservation techniques.

The idea, which Purnell is expected to announce this week, is to use art to develop ties, often with countries where political relations are strained.

“The point of this is to foster global communication,” MacGregor said. “Museums can reach very large numbers and the contacts go on despite political ups and downs.” The appointment of MacGregor, 61, is a recognition of his skills as a preeminent cultural diplomat with a record of bringing major shows to Britain from abroad.

The opening of MacGregor’s First Emperor exhibition, which incorporates soldiers lent by China from the 2,000-year-old terracotta army, was used by Gordon Brown to shower praise on Beijing. More than 200,000 visitors have now viewed the exhibition, which closes on April 6.

The scheme is also designed to “globalise” access to collections in the UK, including those in the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library, the Natural History Museum, the Tate and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

This will entail lending experts in areas such as books, zoology and archeology to developing countries including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The programme will also develop cultural ties with countries in Asia and Africa by lending artefacts from British collections to the countries from which they were originally acquired.

Purnell believes culture and art may foster ties where diplomacy cannot. “We live in a shrinking world with more contact between cultures and countries than ever before,” he said. “We need to learn how to live side by side, giving dignity to our differences and understanding our similarities. London’s museums are one of the best places in the world to understand those different cultures. But we can deepen that understanding by creating connections with other museums around the world.”

Sudan is one of the countries that will benefit from the programme even though political relations are fraught.

British experts are expected to help archeologists from Khartoum exhibit pottery and fabrics from the upper Nile ranging from 2000BC to the medieval period.

Last week Purnell brought forward implementation of an “immunity from seizure” law to ensure exhibits lent from abroad to Britain cannot be seized if there is a dispute over ownership. The move was intended to rescue From Russia, an exhibition of 19th and 20th century French and Russian art at the Royal Academy in January threatened by Russian concerns over the issue.