Neil MacGregor announces departure from British Museum

He is stepping down after 13 years

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The Independent Culture

Neil MacGregor, who has transformed the fortunes of the British Museum during his 13 year reign, is to leave the UK’s most popular visitor attraction at the end of the year.

The 68-year-old Scot told his colleagues of his decision to step down in December at a meeting. The director received prolonged applause from the staff, according to one onlooker, who said the announcement was “emotional for everybody”.

Mr MacGregor spoke of his time at the British Museum as the “greatest privilege of my professional life” but said it was time to retire from fall time employment.

“The Museum is now ready to embark on a new phase - deploying the collection to present different histories of the world. It is an exhilarating prospect,” he said.

During his time at the museum, which he joined in August 2002, attendance has risen almost 50 per cent and has been the most visited UK attraction for eight years in a row.

Cultural historian Robert Hewison said: “When MacGregor took on the British Museum it was in dire straits and there is no doubt he has used his personal charm relentlessly to make the BM the international institution it is today.”

He has presided over a number of blockbuster exhibsition including Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum in 2013, Vikings: life and legend last year and The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army in 2007.

The museum has just appointed headhunters to find Mr MacGregor’s successor, who will look around the world for candidates.

Artist Grayson Perry, who curated a major exhibition at the museum in 2011, tweeted: “Sad that Neil MacGregor is stepping down at the BM. He is brilliant, a sharp diplomat and most importantly a lovely man.”

The museum’s building also underwent a significant overhaul. Last year, marked the completion of the new building with  a bigger exhibition space and new conservation and scientific facilities.

Other projects that boosted Mr MacGregor’s profile, as well as that of the museum, was the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects

Deputy chairman Bonnie Greer, who Mr MacGregor brought onto the board of trustees in 2005, called him a “great man, great era, great friend”.

There had been rumours that high profile institutions in Germany had wanted to poach the much-admired director, and he revealed he would take an advisory position in the country.

He is to chair an advisory board to make recommendations to Monika Grütters, the German minister of culture on the development of the Humboldt-Forum.

Other positions will include advising the CSMVS Museum and its director Sabyasachi Mukherjee in Mumbai as well as making a new series with the British Museum for Radio 4 on faith and society.

Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum, said Mr MacGregor had made an “outstanding director” and an “extraordinary contribution to public life in the UK and beyond”.

Mr MacGregor studied languages at Oxford, philosophy at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and law in Edinburgh. He studied history of art at the Courtauld Institute of art and edited The Burlington Magazine. He became director of the National Gallery in 1987.

“He was brilliant at the National Gallery, and he was brilliant at the British Museum,” Mr Hewison said.

Mr MacGregor, who has turned down a knighthood, was awarded an Order of Merit in 2010, a personal gift of the Queen for “exceptionally meritorious service” an honour only 24 people hold at any one time.