He was mentored by an arts teacher who turned out to be a top KGB spy. He refused a knighthood, yet later became a member of the Queen’s Order of Merit. In less than a decade he turned around the loss-making behemoth that was the British Museum (BM) at the turn of the century. In recent months, he has written and narrated one of the most-watched cultural programmes of our times: A History of the World in 100 Objects. So a conversation with Neil MacGregor was going to run dry.
On a whistle-stop tour of India last week to seek areas of cooperation between BM and some of our largest cultural institutions, MacGregor talked at length about how the importance of museums as "libraries of culture" has never before been felt more acutely.
It feeds into the hot topic of returning museum objects to their countries of origin. As head of the World Collections Programme, which seeks to "establish two-way partnerships" between Britain’s top six museums and "priority regions" that include India, it should be on the top of a large file pile on MacGregor’s table. "The views of few individuals maybe different (Archaeological Survey chief Gautam Sengupta has spoken about returning, among other artefacts, the Sultanganj Buddha). But the Indian government has made it clear to us they are happy for the objects in BM to be there."
What was his biggest tip to turn around Indian museums? "Make them into places of public debates of history. Do shows centred around ideas that have something to do with today." And the biggest challenge to heed? “How to engage with online communities. Move collections online, create a debate there... That will decide the fate of museums."
What did the 31 leaders of cultural institutions he met want from BM? "Mostly, museum education — and we’ll start workshops on that here." What did he want from them? His curator for South Asia, T Richard Blurton, says: "We are only three people looking into South and Southeast Asia at BM. There’s no way we can cope without help from scholars from the region." And some conservation techniques, especially for textiles.
MacGregor wouldn't explain his flip-flop over the royal honours. But there's another episode he can’t stay mum on. In 1973, it was Anthony Blunt who persuaded MacGregor to give up a course in art history in Edinburgh and come to Courtauld Institute. Later, Blunt was outed as the Fourth Man among the Cambridge Spies. "It was, um, shaking at first," says MacGregor, suddenly at a loss for words. "… But our friendship survived." So, for the record, did Blunt ever attempt to draft him? MacGregor erupts in laughter: "I possibly wasn’t good enough for that sort of thing."
Thankfully for us, he does several other things better.