The Director of the British Museum steps down after 13 years of skilful cultural diplomacyby Sameer Rahim / April 8, 2015 / Leave a comment
What is Britain’s role in a post-imperial age? After the failed foreign interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defence budget cuts and increasing scepticism about our membership of the European Union, our politicians are finding this question increasingly difficult to answer. But turn your eyes from Whitehall to Bloomsbury and one national institution has offered a model of constructive engagement with the rest of the world: Neil MacGregor’s British Museum. MacGregor, who has just announced he is standing down as Director in December, has been a huge asset to the museum. For the last eight years, it has been the most visited attraction in the UK. Since he took over in 2002, visitor numbers have risen from 4.6 million to 6.7 million per year. Part of that increase has been down to the spectacular international exhibitions MacGregor and his team have put on, particularly the ones on China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Germany—all countries with which Britain has had, or currently has, fraught relations.
Founded in 1753 as a “universal” place to house objects from around the world, the museum entered its heyday during the imperial era. Victorian explorers brought back treasures acquired from the Mediterranean, Asia and the Middle East. Even if they were bought legally, there remains a whiff of controversy over how other people’s national monuments ended up in London—most famously Lord Elgin’s Marbles, which the Greeks would like returned to the Parthenon. Although solving the Elgin problem eluded MacGregor, his generous lending policy—in 2013-14 over 5,000 objects were put on show elsewhere, including Russia—and cooperation with other countries meant the British Museum lost its colonial overhang. It now feels like a place of genuine international cultural exchange.
In 2007, the museum hosted The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. It told the story of the third-century BC emperor Qin Shihuangdi, who unified China, began building the Great Wall and set up a centralised bureaucracy. Not only was the exhibition fascinating from an artistic point of view, it had unmistakable political resonance. It helped us to understand China’s view of itself as a historically great power: the emperor’s massive building projects are echoed in Shanghai’s modern skyscrapers. While there was some kowtowing to official Chinese sensibilities in the broadly positive presentation of the emperor, his megalomania was hardly hidden. Hearing the fantastical story of how he wanted to be preserved in a grand tomb with rivers of mercury, it was impossible not to think of Chairman Mao, still embalmed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Another great leader was featured in 2009’s Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran. Made with the cooperation of the Iranian government, it focused on how Abbas (1587–1629) revitalised the state religion of Shiism as a way of differentiating his people from the Sunni faith of his Ottoman enemies. The unspoken historical irony was that it was a Shia revolution in 1979 that finally did for the last Shah. As the Middle East descends into sectarian warfare and Iran reasserts itself in the Middle East, it feels an especially prescient commission.
Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam in 2012 drew criticism for its close association with the Saudis. Some of this was justified. It’s odd that the exhibition was silent on the extremist attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 that turned into a bloodbath. Apart from this blemish, though, the Hajj exhibition was a worthwhile project. The general population got a glimpse of a world usually closed off to non-Muslims; and British Muslims saw their faith being presented in a respectful way by the establishment. It also offered an understated pro-integration message by presenting the lives of British converts to Islam and the long history of the travel agent Thomas Cook facilitating Hajj trips.
It was similarly well-judged to pick the centenary of the First World War for an exhibition about Germany. Memories of a Nation was a labour of love for the Germanophile MacGregor, who displayed the richness of the country’s artistic and design heritage—Holbein, Dürer, the Bauhaus, the VW Beetle—alongside the darkest parts of its history. MacGregor was explicitly trying to revive the strong cultural bonds that existed between Britain and Germany before the wars. This show was accompanied by a book and a Radio 4 series. The model was the phenomenally successful History of the World in 100 Objects, in which the whole museum was turned into one enormous exhibition covering the gamut of human civilisation. The 100-part podcast that went with the show has been downloaded an astonishing 40 million times.
During his tenure, MacGregor did nothing less than try to reimagine Britain’s role in the world. He took the burden of the colonial legacy and turned it to his advantage. By allowing other countries to tell their own narratives within the British Museum, he turned a corner of Bloomsbury into a world stage. This is MacGregor’s enormously powerful legacy. Any politician seeking to turn the country in an outward-facing direction could learn plenty from him.