Neil MacGregor: interview

You may think you‘re in London when you visit the British Museum but according to its acclaimed director Neil MacGregor you are actually walking the corridors and galleries of a global institution. As the record-breaking ’First Emperor‘ exhibition comes to an end, MacGregor tells Time Out why he‘s excited about the future

  • Neil MacGregor: interview

    Neil MacGregor in the Prints and Drawings department of the British Museum, with works from 'The American Scene' including a 1951 Jackson Pollock

  • Neil MacGregor loves talking about the world, because most of it is on display at the British Museum, where he’s been director since 2002. ‘The museum was set up in 1753 to be a comparative world collection. One that should be usable by the world and free to people of all nations.’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone repeat one word so often in the space of an hour. ‘In order to make citizens equipped for the world, they’ve got to study the world. There was no equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge in London at that point, so in a way this became the Open University. In fact, it’s like the World Service, helping to build global citizenship and community.’

    MacGregor’s office overlooks Bloomsbury’s most imposing courtyard and a steady stream of visitors entering the BM, little knowing they are about to become world citizens. ‘It’s the only museum in Europe where it’s all under one roof. It’s also different from the other great world museums in that it has always collected contemporary things. The Louvre stopped buying paintings in 1848, and neither the Metropolitan nor the Hermitage acquire contemporary material. They are museums of art but we’re a museum of societies.’ As he says this I notice a wonderful recent sculpture made from tin cans and bottle caps by the West African artist El Anatsui hanging above his desk – an object that could have been woven a hundred years before.

    It’s possible that MacGregor’s got the world on his brain because he’s just returned from a meeting of the aforementioned Big Four museums in Shanghai to discuss ‘what it means to hold collections of world culture, for the world.’ See what I mean? The word is also in his new job title as chairman of World Collections, a position created for him by the last culture secretary James Purnell, who also gave MacGregor £3 million over three years to promote six of Britain’s national collections (the BM, the Tate, the V&A, the British Library, the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) to the rest of the, you know, planet.

    MacGregor says that the BM and Kew were set up in the same decade and in the same spirit; ‘They were both classic Enlightenment projects to gather and order the whole world. Those sorts of collections made Darwin possible. If you add in the others as well, you have an incomparable set of collections aimed at representing everything that grows and lives or has been made, written or thought by man.’

    Charming, intense and voraciously knowledgeable, the Glaswegian plucked from life as a lawyer by Sir Anthony Blunt, whose star pupil he
    became, was the natural choice for the role of globetrotting British culture tsar, but he is keen to distance himself from any political or ambassadorial duties that might have been implied in Purnell’s initial announcement of the World Collections scheme: ‘Art can often reach places where diplomacy cannot.’ Rather than being a government pawn, MacGregor explains, this actually means that he is free to ‘build friendships that will enhance knowledge in both directions’, like the Millennium Seed Bank being developed by Kew in association with Chinese colleagues. ‘All this can go on pretty well whatever the political temperature, even with a country like Iran.’ To this end the British Museum (which already lends objects far more freely and widely than anyone else) has set up an annual summer school in Bloomsbury for 20 or so foreign curators. ‘Sudanese curators may never have worked on anything outside of Sudan before, or it might be the first time an Egyptian will ever have been able to work on Chinese material,’ says MacGregor proudly.

    There are seemingly no national boundaries to his endeavours. Not only did MacGregor not flinch when the 2004 opening of the BM’s Sudan exhibition coincided with yet more bloody conflict in Darfur (instead the exhibition was made free and public donations sent to Oxfam and Save the Children) but he was one of the first on the ground after the National Museum of Iraq was looted five years ago this week.

    The BM is not marking this forgettable anniversary – in which some 10,000 priceless objects were tossed around or stolen after Saddam’s fall from power – but is instead waiting for the November exhibition ‘Babylon: City of Wonder’, ‘in order to place these things in their proper context’.

    Perhaps he feels responsible in some way (because the BM, surprisingly, had a hand in founding both the Khartoum and Baghdad museums a century ago) or perhaps he is just plain angry, because MacGregor seems frustrated at his inability to ensure that this ancient knowledge is not permanently lost. ‘The reality is that it’s very hard to do anything in Iraq at the moment. In the first year after the invasion we were able to send people there and bring Iranian colleagues out, but this has got much more difficult. What we can do is help the British Army near Basra carry out surveys of buildings and archaeological sites and make a priority list. The museum is no longer the issue. The real worry – in a country as economically dislocated as Iraq – is that people still believe there are valuable things in the ground, so they dig up the archaeological sites. Even some of the pre-Islamic buildings and shrines, seen as deviant by some Muslims, have been attacked.’

    Back in London, conservation is also the BM’s main concern: ‘All this should be here in another 100 or 200 years, we must keep it safe for the future,’ says MacGregor. The next major undertaking for the museum is a new Conservation Centre, to be completed before 2012. ‘The range of material is enormous and so requires different storage conditions and conservation skills – whether it’s ivory, cuneiform tablets or feathers, which are a particular nightmare to look after.’

    As ever, MacGregor has one eye on his evangelist’s mission to open up the collection to everyone, starting with the uploading of more than 250,000 prints and drawings to the website. There’s also a superb show called ‘The American Scene’ opening next week, showcasing a well-chosen fraction of the BM’s holdings of works on paper from the US. MacGregor points out a particular image from the show called ‘Tranquillity’ by Joseph Leboit that depicts a gas-masked man painting a vaguely cubist spray of flowers as bombers fly overhead in the background. Because it shows how isolationist America was during the war, in both culture and politics, this is an ideal art object for the BM’s director; ‘as well as referencing the great names and artistic currents it allows you to read a whole other set of narratives about the history of twentieth-century America.’

    Although this new show may not trouble the ‘First Emperor’ exhibition for audience figures (the Terracotta Army leaves town this week in a final flurry of midnight and 24-hour openings, having welcomed around 800,000 visitors) it still fits the place’s original remit: ‘It’s always been about understanding the world, both through the past and through what’s going on now.’

    He sees contemporary resonances in everything, especially when discussing the BM’s next big show on Roman emperor Hadrian: ‘His first foreign policy decision was to withdraw from Iraq, the one problem he never managed to solve was Palestine and he also had trouble in the Balkans, not to mention with the bloody Scots! Far from being facile, these fault lines show how and why areas of conflict exist.’ He tells me there will be two more major exhibitions in this series of four ‘reigns’, ending with Shah Abbas, the Persian ruler, and Montezuma, the Aztec emperor.

    MacGregor famously arrived at the BM during a period of financial crisis and staff strikes, but says it helped that the following year was the institution’s 250th anniversary: ‘Given the scale of the museum and what had already been achieved, the problems were much smaller and more marginal than we thought.’ Maybe it’s his firm grip on the museum’s original principles that has enabled MacGregor to keep the ship afloat so successfully. ‘The museum was the first physical consequence of the global economy, because by that point London was trading with the whole world through its shipping, as no other city ever had.’ Indeed, Peter Ackroyd points out that the museum’s sea-faring connection is as deep, in every sense, as it can be: it is built on a foundation stone textured with oyster shells.

    ‘London is still the most global city, but what I find interesting is how we reconfigure the collection as our understanding of the world shifts and as London changes. There’s this astonishing equivalence between the collection and the population, it’s as though the people have followed the things. For example, the great Bengali collection built up by the East India Company is now in the same city as a very large Bengali population. We’ve got a whole series of programmes to engage different groups of the London population, so for Chinese New Year we gave lectures on Sutton Hoo in Chinese.’

    He always gets asked whether he will allow the Elgin Marbles to return to Greece, so I see if he’ll give me either a yes or a no. ‘There isn’t a one-word answer. People have different views on where cultural objects should be. I believe there should be places where you can see the whole world together and I think the Parthenon sculptures are an incredibly important part of telling that story. Their removal would be a great loss to the world’s understanding of itself.’

    One topic that he hasn’t yet addressed in public is the recent announcement that the long-standing director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Phillippe de Montebello, is shortly to retire. This leaves the door open to the most sought-after international museum post, a door that many commentators have already speculatively chalked with MacGregor’s name. He won’t take a knighthood and can’t possibly achieve any higher accolades here (having already been dubbed ‘Saint Neil’ in his last directorship at the National Gallery), so will he leave London? ‘I think I already have the most interesting museum job going, because uniquely among the great collections we’re not overbalanced or swamped by the glamour of European painting. You don’t get the sense that this is a Eurocentric museum. It’s about the world.’ There’s that word again. Well, as the old saying goes, Neil, it’s your oyster: it’s spread over four floors and 100 galleries and it’s free to get in.

    The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock’ is at the British Museum from Apr 10-Sept 7. ‘Hadrian: Empire and Conflict’ opens Jul 26-Oct 26.

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