April 11, 2008

Neil MacGregor’s legacy at the British Museum

Posted at 1:05 pm in British Museum

Neil MacGregor has been responsible for many good things at the British Museum. Coverage of these aspects though often skims over other issues that are holding back the progress of the museum.

Evening Standard (London)

The man who has made this the UK’s top ticket
By Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard 08.04.08

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum for the past six years, has never looked more eager as he bounds into his magnificent slate-blue office in Bloomsbury. Today he will announce two new glittering statistics of the kind that have characterised his reign since he took over in 2002.

First comes news of the record-breaking 850,619 visitors for China’s Terracotta Army exhibition, which closed on Sunday after a triumphant six-month run, making it the most successful show since the BM’s own Treasures of Tutankhamun in 1972 (at 1.7 million visitors, still unbeaten as the most successful exhibition in the UK but it ran for a year). This is more than double the 400,000 predicted. Queues formed round the block and opening hours had to be extended three times to meet demand.

Second, and even more remarkable, is the dramatic increase in overall attendance — now 6.03 million, up from 4.8 million in 2006-7. This confirms the museum as the top visitor attraction in the UK. It has now risen to second most popular museum in the world, following the Louvre in Paris and nudging the ever magnetic and glamorous Pompidou Centre into third place.

“This is a colossal and thrilling achievement,” grins MacGregor, a ridiculously boyish 62-year-old Glaswegian who worked similar magic in his former job running the National Gallery. There he was nicknamed “Saint Neil” for his skill and popularity, as much as for his devout Christian faith.

Given the extraordinary collection of the British Museum — some 13 million objects, from flint hand-axes to cigarette cards — he will now require an even grander multi-faith title. (This most egalitarian of men has already turned down a knighthood.)

The irony of the Terracotta Army show, a serene exploration of an ancient culture, ending on the very day anti-Chinese protesters and police were scuffling over the Olympic Torch in the streets outside hardly needs stating.

It merely confirms MacGregor’s belief in the urgency and profound relevance of the institution he runs. He wants universal, three-dimensional understanding, not one-dimensional politicking.

“A show like The First Emperor enables people to explore histories most of us were never taught. And now, given the events of Tibet, it’s ever more vital for us to try to understand the context of Chinese history, the sense of one-ness which was important even in 210BC.”

In a lighter vein, he especially delights in the stunning success of the museum’s activities for Chinese New Year in February. A full programme of events included lectures in Mandarin and Cantonese about other aspects of the collection, such as Egyptian mummies and Lewis Chessmen. “They were packed. We had 35,000 people roaming around, the largest single number ever, forcing us to shut the gates because of overcrowding, the first time in the museum’s history.”

How has this transformation from stuffy old British Museum to star attraction come about? In days past, when the British Library was still housed in the round Reading Room the BM’s image was dusty, fusty and silent.

Now it is noisy with families and ordinary people enjoying themselves. You can buy Ancient Egypt pop-up books, Rosetta Stone paperweights or your own DIY miniature Terracotta Army. More than 30,000 warrior replicas have been purchased so far, together with 52,000 catalogues and 320,000 postcards.

No one, not even the 25 trustees who govern the place, handpicked from the great, the good and the mightily intellectual, sniffs at this cheerfully commercial democratisation of knowledge.

“I was lucky,” MacGregor acknowledges. “I arrived just as the Great Court, bitterly controversial in the long years of its planning and building, had been completed. Now it’s come into its own. It’s the focal point of this great building, with the Reading Room — where the Terracotta Army was on show — in the middle. You can cross continents from Egypt to China in moments, just by traversing the Great Court, where once you struggled down miles of dark corridors.”

In addition, after years of financial crisis and bad press about the running of the place, the mechanics are more smooth-running. Annual funding of £47 million per year is now stable. The museum raises another £15 million or more in private donations.

“It helps enormously, too, that we have finally proved the point of free admission, after holding out all those years when others were charging. Now other countries such as France are following suit. It’s the only way to encourage people to come and see what, after all, belongs to us all.”

But MacGregor believes the real upturn at the museum is explained by the radical change in London itself: “More than ever, we realise that London is a microcosm of the world, as no other city is — not even New York. The museum reflects that new, deeply multicultural identity, all under one roof.”

One of his key tasks has been actively to encourage and welcome people through the doors. Just the grandeur of Smirke’s majestic Greek Revival portico can be off-putting:

“We’ve been working with different communities in London — Bengali, Korean, Sudanese and now Chinese. And we’ve been running courses for curators from Africa and Asia, to meet each other and to learn how to handle objects so that we can display them safely in their home countries. This is our role. It’s out-side politics. It’s the way a post-colonial collection must function.”

Macgregor is a natural evangelist, a public figure unafraid of using the media to put his message across — as he did with his own successful BBC2 series on Christian art, Seeing Salvation (2000). He also allowed in the cameras for The Museum. a 10-episode behind-the-scenes look at his institution. He is the museum world’s David Attenborough, an erudite populariser, winning respect from experts and public alike.

One of his first bold moves, shortly after arriving in the job, was to send curators to Iraq just weeks into the war to save precious artefacts. His diplomatic chutzpah won worldwide admiration for the man and for the museum. Five years on, the BM has just announced plans to work with the British Army to assess the situation in Baghdad and Basra.

“It’s the only way to see what’s happening on the ground,” MacGregor says. “Otherwise we’d have no access. The risks, already grave enough, would be too enormous. We’re here as a resource, a place of worldwide expertise as well as a guardian of objects.”

A frequent traveller to the Middle East, he has recently returned from Iran. “At the moment political relations are pretty frosty. But contact between our cultural institutions is very close. The Chinese only lent the Terracotta Army because of support and loans given in Beijing by the British Museum.”

Following the warriors, the museum’s next major archaeological show is Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, with exhibitions on Babylon and Persia to follow. A planning application is under way with Camden Council to allow the Reading Room to continue as a temporary exhibition space.

On Thursday a major exhibition on the history of American printmaking, The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, opens. This makes use of a tiny fraction of the museum’s unique 2.5 million print and drawing collection. “What excites me is that we’ve had so many bequests and donations as we’ve been putting the show together. It’s one of the ways in which the collection continues to grow.” This point is important, since the old methods of expansion — including various forms of high-class looting — are no longer acceptable, and the BM’s acquisition budget is inevitably modest, set against the costs of keeping the place open and functioning.

As a joint venture with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a picturesque Chinese garden will be made in the front courtyard. Plans will shortly be announced, too, concerning a new 1,000 square metre exhibition space at the north-west side of the building, with major new conservation studios which will be on public view.

These should be ready in 2011, the year MacGregor’s contract runs out. when he reaches 65. He shows no signs of wanting to take up any of the current top vacancies which, automatically in the gossipy art world, always have his name attached (currently the Metropolitan Museum in New York).

Endorsing his visible commitment to the UK, he recently accepted the cultural ambassador role of chairman of World Collections, to develop international links between Tate, the V&A, the British Library, the Natural History Museum and Kew, as well as the British Museum. So really just an extension of what he’s doing already?

“Yes exactly. It’s not being on the phone to Gordon every day giving advice on the arts, though some have assumed that’s my task.”

The very idea makes Neil MacGregor roar with laughter. His dream is not to have cosy chats with Downing Street but to bring about conversations between nations of the world. And he’s living it now.

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1 Comment »

  1. William D. Woods said,

    12.10.08 at 6:43 pm

    The 10 part series about the British Museum, with Neil MacGregor. Is it available? If so, is the format available to play on United States of America’s typical home entertainment equipment.

    Thank you for you assistance.

    William D. Woods

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