Neil MacGregor's exemplary tenure at the British Museum is an object lesson in curatorship


Click to follow
The Independent Online

If the rarefied world of museum curatorship had something as vulgar as an approval rating, Neil MacGregor would surely score a perfect 10. The announcement that he is stepping down as director of the British Museum brings to a close 13 years of remarkable achievement: increased visitor numbers (up 45 per cent from 4.6 million to 6.7 million since 2002), popular and critically acclaimed exhibitions, such as The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army and the intensely moving Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The modest 68-year-old Scot managed to transform a large, draughty, unloved and dangerously moribund international mausoleum into the most visited UK attraction for eight years running.

Mr MacGregor’s greatest contribution to British cultural life, however, has been himself: his phenomenally well-stocked mind, his lightly worn learning, his enthusiasm for the multifarious details that constitute a nation’s culture, whether in ancient Persia or modern Germany. His Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects found as much significance in a two-million-year-old chopping tool from Tanzania as in a Visa credit card from the United Arab Emirates.

Like the best teachers, Mr MacGregor uses the particular to discuss the global, finding the largest audience by starting from solid things rather than ideas. He strove to turn a museum that was once an emblem of the British Empire into a display-house of multiculturalism. And although he disdains the role of diplomat, as being a person who advances the fortunes of one country rather than many, Mr MacGregor has shown astonishing tact in justifying the museum’s retention of the Elgin Marbles when many are calling for their return to Athens.

Whatever the future holds, Mr MacGregor can be pleased to reflect that he has himself become one of the leading exhibits of British intellectual life, to be shown off to the outside world with pride and affection.