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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.


When Neil MacGregor was a seven-year old boy, he was brought on a trip down from Glasgow to the British Museum, where he was able to touch the Rosetta Stone. He is unlikely to have thought then that this amazing object would one day be in his keeping, as Director of the British Museum.

There is a certain kind of Birkbeck student for whom one or even two degrees is not enough; such students tend to collect degrees as energetically as an Elizabeth Taylor collects consorts. It seems appropriate that a man so much of whose life would be concerned with collecting and collections should have begun it with a exuberantly Birkbeckian degree-collecting spree. After reading French and German at New College, Oxford, he proceeded to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris. He studied law at the University of Edinburgh and in 1972 was admitted to membership of the Edinburgh Faculty of Advocates. His interest in art led him to the Courtauld Institute, for an MA, after which he began his career as an art historian in 1975, when he was appointed as a lecturer in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Reading.

His move into a more public role with regard to art began when he was appointed as editor of the prestigious Burlington Magazine, which was then part of the Thompson newspaper empire. Under his editorship, from 1981 to 1987, the magazine was transferred to independent and charitable status.

In 1987, he was appointed Director of the National Gallery, a position he was to retain for 15 years. He was truly inspiring in this role. Peter Scott, the Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery called him ‘one of the most successful Directors the Gallery has ever seen’. Under his leadership, the Sainsbury Wing was completed, the main display refurbished and the exhibitions, education and publishing programmes were given a new lease of life. The Gallery made noteworthy and highly-publicised acquisitions, including Stubbs’s 'Whistlejacket' and Holbein’s 'The Lady with a Squirrel'. Throughout the period of his stewardship he was in the forefront of the battle to keep admission to museums and galleries free, and was rewarded by a public who visited the National Gallery in ever-increasing numbers. The new visibility and respect he won for the National Gallery are due very largely to his own infectious enthusiasm for the collection, and willingness to be its ambassador and interpreter. He is very much what in sporting terms might be called a player-manager. To mark the millennium year, he curated an exhibition called 'Seeing Salvation', which surveyed the historical representations of Jesus Christ in Western European art and sculpture, from the earliest depictions in the catacombs of second-century Rome to its modern expressionist forms in the twentieth century. In parallel with the exhibition, he presented a four-part BBC series, which stimulated huge interest in the exhibition.

In August 2002, he took up the position he presently holds, as Director of the British Museum. The museum was more than £5 million in debt, with a third of its galleries closed, and with annual visitor figures in decline. In the short time he has been Director, the Museum has flowered once again, and is able to plan confidently for an expansive future.

The National Gallery has around 2,000 paintings. In contrast, the British Museum, with 1,200 staff, has 50,000 objects on display and six million more in storage. Neil MacGregor took delight in discovering the many worlds within a world that the British Museum contained - an entire department, for instance, devoted to the preservation of Oriental papers. Sometimes the very surfeit of riches in such institutions creates headaches, and the British Museum has sometimes come under pressure to thin or cull some of its materials. (It is said that one of the early directors of the Natural History Museum, which was, like the British Museum, founded on the collections of Hans Soane, used to deal with the problem of superfluous or duplicate exhibits by surreptitious bonfires or burying them in the grounds at night.) But Neil MacGregor brings a scholar's eye to this question and has defended the importance of being able to see slight variations in seemingly identical objects.

He was appointed just as the British Museum was entering its third century of existence. Founded in 1753, the British Museum is a representative product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. A more robust and determined defender of the principles of the Enlightenment museum than Neil MacGregor is hard to imagine. He has called the British Museum 'the first Open University', a designation that will resound with those Birkbeck students for whom it has been a way-station or second home. Where in 1753, the British Museum was a place where educated Europeans could come to see the marvels of the world assembled, now, says Neil MacGregor, it is a world museum in a world city. He was a signatory in December 2002 to a Declaration On the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which urged that 'museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation'. It was appropriate that the newly refurbished King's Library should have opened in December 2003 with an exhibition in which the British Museum seems both to revisit and reinvent its own raison d'etre, its reason for being, and its being in reason. It is called Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th Century. That big little word - 'world' - has become increasingly common of late in Neil MacGregor's always-elegant lexicon. He wants the British Museum, he says, to be 'a place where people can learn about global citizenship'. His aim, he has said, is to create 'different ways of walking round the world, different worlds to walk around.' (What a treat it is for an orator to have a subject who actually speaks in iambic pentameters!)

He is an old hand at receiving higher degrees and fellowships, having been awarded Honorary Doctorates by the University of York in 1992 and the University of Edimbourgh in 1994. In 1998, he received a DLitt from the University of Oxford, whose orator called him 'picturarum conquisitorem conservatorem explicatorem eminentissimum, thesaurarium summum, thesaurum ipsum' sentiments with which it will be easy for us all to agree, and which of course in a certain sense, go without saying.

Neil MacGregor’s eminence as collector, conserver and interpreter, 'a treasure of the very kind of which he is the keeper', as it has been said, give him the authority to intervene on an international as well as a national stage. In April 2003, after the looting of the Baghdad Museum, Neil MacGregor launched an urgent call to "kill the market in looted antiquities with an international declaration along the lines of that by the Allied Powers in the Second World War about works of art sold in Nazi-occupied Europe ". In the following month, he formed part of a UNESCO delegation to assess artistic and archeological losses as a result of looting.

Despite the enormous erudition and authority that he brings to all his writing about art and culture, he is a man who remains closely in touch with the needs and responses of the average visitor. In the age of the back-breaking, knee-weakening blockbuster exhibition, it is refreshing to have the Director of the British Museum say 'We want to make it easier for more people to see less'. Neil MacGregor's ideal visitor is one who stays for only a few minutes and perhaps looks at only one exhibit: but is not put off (for example by the price of admission) from coming back the following day. The British Museum, he says, is 'a perpetual blockbuster museum', and his aim has been to increase the dialgoue between visitors and the permanent collection. As one might imagine, the man who grew from the boy who was given the Rosetta Stone to touch is not wildly fond of virtual displays, preferring instead to institute a scheme that will allow visitors to handle some of the objects. His temperament is evidenced by the visit he undertook to the Sudan last summer to see the exact spot from which one of the museum’s great treasures, a bronze head of the Roman Emperor Augustus, had been excavated.

As with his time at the National Gallery, he takes delight in communicating to a wider audience about the objects in his keeping, about which he writes and speaks with curiosity, fervour and amazement. There is in his excited enthusiasm something of the seven-year old boy who has been miraculously given the run of a sweetshop. One imagines him padding round the galleries at night in his pyjamas with a torch. Earlier this year, he shared with readers of The Times some of his responses to a wooden crescent from Easter Island. He wondered about its purpose: was it ‘an object of contemplation, perhaps linked to some cult of the moon or the tides?’ Or perhaps it was ‘an excruciating headrest (there are even more uncomfortable ones from East Asia on show elsewhere in the museum)’? Eventually, he discovers the label, which discloses that the object was worn round the neck as a mark of high status. The piece concludes with a piece of unethnographic but unabashed whimsy which connects him with the reactions of many of the visitors to the gallery: ‘I shall privately now think of this marvel of balanced design as the Easter Island version of a CBE.’

It occurs to me too late that it would have been a wonderful coup for us to have had a replica of such an object made, for the Master to hang round Neil MacGregor's neck. As it is, we mark our admiration and respect for his achievements, in a slightly more formal, but no less companionable way, by welcoming him now as a Fellow of Birkbeck College.