Sunday, December 28, 2008

CONGRATULATIONS to Dr. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, who has been named Briton of the Year by the London Times:
Briton of the Year: Neil MacGregor
'Saint' whose charm and enthusiasm had a curative effect on the British Museum

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Chief Art Critic

Saint Neil is his nickname. And we are blessed to have him. The British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, is far more than just the highly successful administrator of an iconic national establishment. He is a committed idealist who, in a world in which culture is increasingly presented as the acceptable face of politics, has pioneered a broader, more open, more peaceable way forward.

This year we almost lost him. He was being courted to replace Philippe de Montebello as the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It was easy to see why the Americans would covet him. Here was a man who had managed – by what often felt like charm and enthusiasm alone – to turn a financial basket case back into a cultural jewel.

When he took up his post in 2002, the British Museum was £5 million in deficit. Morale was at rock bottom. Visitor numbers had plummeted to less than a million. A third of the galleries were closed and the staff that had not yet been sacked were on strike. Six years later, under MacGregor’s auspices, it has six million visitors a year and heads the list of our cultural attractions, trumping even Blackpool’s time-honoured mass-market mecca, the Pleasure Beach.

Who wouldn’t value a man who could convince the masses that carved lumps of old rock are more worth visiting than the Pepsi Max Big One? But MacGregor stayed in Britain. He declined the Met on principle. It was not a public institution, he said. And he wanted to stay at a museum that was free to everyone. MacGregor, it would appear, is profoundly democratic. Refocusing upon the founding ideals of the institution that was established by Act of Parliament in 1753 as a museum for the world, he has radically redefined the role that it can play in public life.

I'm glad they held on to him. The British Museum has been mentioned frequently in PaleoJudaica during his tenure. See, for example, entries on the Babylon exhibition, the Phoenicia voyage, the Hadrian exhibition, the Vindolanda texts, the Ancient Persia exhibition, the Nebo-Sarsekim tablet, the Cyrus Cylinder, and the Museum's Mesopotamia Collection. In many cases you can follow the links back for more information.