Published  05/01/2009

The Saint of Museum St: Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor has, in 2008 brought to a climax his immediate series of historical exhibitions at the British Museum. The Babylon exhibition now current there is masterly, highly relevant to contemporary culture and politics, and very much the creation of the master himself (also reviewed here on this site). Since he took over as Director he has transformed the BM from the dusty, idiosyncratic conglomerate it was in the l980s and l990s, to a world-beating venue for British and World tourists alike. Indeed the visitor figures even appear now to have overtaken those of Tate Modern. MacGregor, unlike most museum and gallery directors, earlier on, turned down the offer of a knighthood too. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was itself keenly courting him as a replacement of Philippe de Montebello some time back, with no luck but a polite refusal too.

It is said that MacGregor in l986, as Editor of the well-respected Burlington Magazine, sidelined in his home mailbox a buff envelope, thinking it to be a tax communication to be dealt with in the fullness of time. In due course, on opening it, he found an invitation from the National Gallery to apply for the post of director, which he duly did, just in time. From there began a scintillating sequence of a highly successful Gallery directorship culminating in the British Museum post. It is to be hoped that he can continue there beyond the allotted term, since the Museum has never seen better days or prospects. As the London Times says, he has made it the best museum in the world, no less. There has been no bombast or drum- beating in building up this controversial series of major exhibitions, often difficult politically (e.g. China, Iraq), just a cool, but enthusiastic diplomatic process, of negotiation with fellow museum professionals. The Foreign Office has never been so fortunate, in so linking culture and geo-politics productively together.
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