Neil MacGregor

(Elected 2002)

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, says it’s an ‘enormous honour’ to become a Fellow of Birkbeck. The British Museum and Birkbeck have an educational partnership that goes back many years. The two institutions fund a joint lectureship and offer a Certificate and Diploma in World Arts and Artefacts.

‘What pleases me very much is that the traditions of Birkbeck and the British Museum are parallel,’ says Neil MacGregor. ‘The British Museum is a place where people can inform themselves and form a view of their place in world cultures. Similarly, Birkbeck provides access to education for people who might otherwise face insurmountable obstacles. Both institutions are expressions of the belief that the right to education is a central part of civic entitlement.’

Neil MacGregor took the helm at the British Museum in 2002, following 15 years as Director of the National Gallery, where he successfully led the campaign to keep access to public collections free. ‘It’s more important than ever to educate people about different cultures,’ he says. ‘The British Museum helps to combat the idea that people are separate from each other through their histories and culture. In fact, as you see at the Museum, every civilisation draws from its neighbours and feeds into other things.’

One purpose of the British Museum is to ‘generate scepticism in the face of the rhetoric of political separateness’, he adds. It was in this spirit that the British Museum coordinated an international response from the museum community in April 2003 to help preserve antiquities in Iraq during the war. ‘We have set up professional friendships that survive politics, and the museum has kept close links with our colleagues in Baghdad,’ he says. ‘It was a remarkable demonstration of what an academic community can do.’

With a first degree in French and German from New College, Oxford (1967), Neil MacGregor studied philosophy at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, law at the University of Edinburgh and history of art at the Courtauld Institute. A Fellow of New College, Oxford, he is also an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Member of the Royal Scottish Academy. Neil MacGregor was editor of the Burlington Magazine between 1981 and 1986, and is the author of a number of publications on the history of art and architecture. He has received several honorary doctorates, from the universities of London, Oxford, Edinburgh and York – to name just a few.