The lessons of Mr. MacGregor

The former British Museum director speaks about the value of historical objects, Brexit and the importance of public education.

Neil MacGregor
In a sun-filled, book-lined room at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (VLJI), Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, had plenty to say about the role museums play in society.
MacGregor, who traveled to Israel to give a lecture and take part in a panel at VLJI, explains the forces that have prevented the famed Elgin Marbles from being put on display in their native Greece.
The hotly contested artifact was removed from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, at the start of the 19th Century. The shipping of the artifact was presented at the time as a heroic feat, in which Western civilization was rescued from the Ottoman Turks, who allegedly ground timeless Greek statues into paste to make mortar. Yet modern-day Greece has demanded the marbles be allowed to return home, to Athens, and be viewed in their original setting.
The British Museum offered to lend it to Athens, but “they refused to borrow it,” MacGregor explains, “they said if it would go, it would never return.”
The former director of the British Museum and the National Gallery, MacGregor is one of the leading figures in the world of art and museums today. Promoting the worldview that art and culture are vital to society and public life, he presented two successful BBC Radio Four shows, Living with the Gods and A History of the World in 100 Objects, which showcased objects in the British Museum collection while offering perspectives on their historical, cultural and religious importance.
MacGregor is careful to point out that the British Museum – which opened in 1753, eight years after the Battle of Culloden, is the first institution on the islands which is not considered English, Scottish, or Royal – but British.
The objects in it are not owned by the English or Scottish peoples either, by the royals or even by the state. They are kept in a trustee by parliament, who is forbidden to accept monetary profit from them, which is why admission to the British Museum and the British Library has always been free.
“At the founding act of the British Museum,” he said, “they had to answer a question: Who are they holding it for? And they said it is for studios and all curious persons in the world.”
On Tuesday in Jerusalem, MacGregor took part in a round table discussion about the civic role of curators that included, Ido Bruno, the director of the Israel Museum, Said Abu Shakra, director of the Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery, Galia Bar-Or, former director of the Mishkan Museum of Art in Ein Harod and historian and Prof. Dror Wahrman.
The Elgin Marbles are not the only hotly contested ancient artifacts. The heated discourse about preservation and colonial legacy, ownership and accessibility, identity and power includes the bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin, which Egyptians would be delighted to see return to their homeland for the future opening of the Grand Egyptian museum in 2019. Should the looted treasures of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem ever be found – thought to be buried in a Roman catacomb – one can safely assume the State of Israel would be interested in getting those back as well.
“The Cyrus Cylinder,” for example, “is held [by the British Museum] for the benefit of the Iranian people, as for that of the Spanish people and the Jewish people and for everyone, everywhere,” MacGregor pointed out. “So lending internationally is a very important bit, I think, of this idea of a museum, which is why the British Museum is the biggest lender in the world. One of the reasons we lent [The Cyrus Cylinder] to Tehran [in 2010] is because Tehran had lent very generously to the British Museum,” he added.
The Tehran showing of the famous Cylinder, which is one of the few cases of Hebrew Scriptures being verified by an undisputed historical text, drew roughly a million visitors according to the Iranians, including then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former Iranian leader, who is known for being fiercely anti-Israel is featured in a 2012 TED talk as he cheerfully waves to the crowds,
perhaps not realizing that the object at his side calls on Jews to return to Zion and build their temple due to a divine promise.
“[The British Museum] isn’t named [after the] British because it’s about Britain,” MacGregor explains, “it’s called British because it’s for the citizens. If you think of that moment in European history, when it is emerging from two centuries of religious wars and millions killed, the only political question is: “How do you manage to let people with different ideas live together in the same state without killing each other?”
“That is the purpose of a museum, [to be] a place where you can compare what all peoples have done and think about all humanity as one,” he said, pointing to former British prime minister Robert Peel, who argued that by making the national collection free, one allows rich and poor alike to enjoy the same great things, which cements the bonds of union between the richer and the poorer orders of the state.
Mentored by renowned British art historian [and Soviet spy] Anthony Blunt, MacGregor has taken a different path. While Blunt was the erudite scholar producing unparalleled works about painters like Nicolas Poussin, MacGregor passionately believes that art matters for many, and that the manner in which an art collection is maintained and presented is as important as the objects themselves.
“What was so powerful about the way Blunt talked about and taught painting was that in [it] he saw an artist’s attempt to make sense of the world, the whole world,” MacGregor said. “Blunt was very much fascinated by the idea you could address politics in visual terms and what that meant. It was a very exhilarating experience to be taught by someone who thought in those terms, it meant you kept moving from the paintings to ideas and politics and then to the big questions.”
Modestly protesting that he never thought himself a fitting candidate to inhabit the ivory towers of British Academia, MacGregor said he was inspired by another ex-director of the National Gallery, the late Kenneth Clark, who produced ground-breaking educational television programs about the arts such as Five Revolutionary Painters (1959), Three Faces of France (1966) and Civilization (1966).
Asked about the public role of intellectuals in societies that are in armed conflict with others or, like Britain, who chose to exit a political community of nations, he points out that Brexit revealed the sharp contrasts of how life is experienced among different British people today.
“I would read Brexit as an English problem and an English response,” said MacGregor, who is Scottish. “It is not accidental that Scotland and Northern Ireland feel quite comfortably European, because they have always been very comfortable with multiple identities. We’ve always grown up being Scottish and British and European.”
Returning to the role of the museum, MacGregor suggested that “the museum’s role is to remind people the debate is always complex. Things speak of complexity, texts can easily become simple or one dimensional, but things have their own complex authenticity.”