In the spring of 2008 I went on a press trip with the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, to Hadrian’s wall. It was one of a series of jaunts planned by the BM in the run-up to its great Hadrian exhibition, a little Roman holiday. But though the wall was fascinating, I spent most of my time inspecting the director. He’s charming and universally admired — but also enigmatic. What are his politics? What does he do for fun? Nobody seems to know.
So I watched him at Segedunum in Newcastle, talking to local grandees, charming, mercurial, alert. I watched him out by Housesteads fort, chatting to the curators. On the way back, in the minibus, I peered at him from my seat beside the editor of British Archaeology, admiring the way he can gossip as easily about 4th-century Rome as about 21st-century London. But I left knowing less than ever about him.
Two years later, listening to MacGregor on BBC Radio 4 telling A History of the World in 100 Objects, it occurred to me that his mysterious private life makes him ideal for the BM: he can tell the story of an object without his own intervening. A few weeks after that, walking through the October rain and the half-enticing smell of hot-dog onions to meet him again, it struck me that everything about MacGregor’s life prior to the BM seems to have been preparing him for this job. He has a passion for the Enlightenment, for raising the consciousness of mankind; he’s a gifted teacher — crucial for an institution that was set up as a kind of Open University; he’s a fund-raiser par excellence (the Sainsburys have just given £25 million to the BM). It’s almost creepy when you think about it: as if the objects in the museum — the emperors, ankhs, scimitars and sphinxes — pooled their ancient powers and summoned up Neil to represent them to the world. He also has a snake-charmer’s gift for convincing journalists to dance to his tune.
Like this one here, now, sitting opposite him, only a few minutes into our interview and already convinced that one of the worst things the government can do in next week’s spending review is to cut the BM’s funding.
Have I been snake-charmed? I don’t think so. The BM is not just a collection of random objects, it’s our story: the most complete history of humanity we’ve got. ‘If you want to tell the history of the whole world...you cannot do it through texts alone,’ MacGregor points out in the book that has been published to accompany his radio series, ‘because only some of the world has ever had texts, while the rest of the world, for most of the time, has not.’
‘Take, for example, the bark shield, dropped by a frightened Aborigine who rushed to challenge James Cook,’ says MacGregor. ‘Cook’s side of things is well documented, but the shield tells the story of the other side — how the indigenous Aborigines occupied their continent. The museum is simply the greatest resource in the world for writing histories, and every country now is redefining itself through its history. It’s one of the most extraordinary phenomena of the past 50 years.’
As the shadow of the Chancellor’s axe falls across the art world, it’s worth pointing out that the BM has a duty not just to preserve its treasures, but also to research them. There are more than 7 million objects in the BM, and each object cries out to have its story told.
‘Yes, yes,’ says MacGregor, ‘that’s why curators are so important, and why it’s imperative that institutions like these keep their research base. Informed scholarship is absolutely indispensable. And what’s so interesting’ — those three words, I soon realise, are MacGregor’s code for ‘what it’s crucial the government grasps’ — ‘is that it takes a long, long time to acquire knowledge about things in the collection.’ He cocks his head; have I got the point? ‘If you lose expertise in this area, it takes you a very, very long time to recover because what’s so interesting is that an expert needs to spend years with the objects to acquire the right skills.’
But does the museum really need to be the biggest in the world? Isn’t it time to give back some ill-gotten gains? Take the Benin bronzes, for example — pillaged from Nigeria in the late-19th century by deceitful, war-mongering Brits. Neil sighs. ‘Giving back is a complicated set of words. The Benin bronzes weren’t taken from a modern nation state, so it’s difficult to say who “owns” them. And, remember, the museum’s trustees have a duty to ensure that objects will be preserved and that they will achieve the greatest public benefit.’
What’s certainly true is that, since they left home, the bronzes have done immeasurable good — proving that 16th-century west Africans were infinitely more sophisticated than Europe had supposed. ‘Yes, the bronzes came as the result of a grim, bloody war, but the impact they had here, for the good, was tremendous. They changed the way Europeans could think about Africans. You could argue that the assumptions of racial superiority that underpinned the raid itself were undermined precisely by the objects they brought back!’
And there are countless other BM objects hard at work worldwide. Take the 6th-century BC Cyrus Cylinder, often described (probably wrongly) as the earliest charter of human rights. As politicians puff and rant over Iran, MacGregor has pulled off a little coup: lending the cylinder to Tehran, forging peaceful links with a country most think of as implacably hostile. ‘Yes, there’s a starting point of profound suspicion, but what’s striking is the absolute conviction of the government that, whatever is happening politically, cultural exchanges go on,’ says MacGregor. But won’t the Iranians just keep the cylinder, refuse to give it back? ‘Well, the cylinder is not Iranian, it was made in Babylon in Iraq but became part of the Iranian Empire. It is an object in Iranian history, which is not the same thing at all. Iranians understand that. The President himself talked about the cylinder as belonging to the world, and we discussed lending it to other countries, which the Iranians think is a very good idea.’
Good news from Iran! How unusual. And then, of course, there’s China — whose relationship with the BM has only strengthened since that visit from the terracotta army. ‘For the past six years we have been sending an exhibition of the great foreign civilisations to Shanghai every two years — at the moment we have Indian sculpture there, and the visitor figures are astounding,’ says MacGregor. ‘Hundreds of thousands of Chinese people all queuing up — people who have never before seen a single thing not made in China. And what’s so interesting is that all Chinese museums have gone free on the basis of the British model — did you know that? It’s a great tribute, isn’t it?’ MacGregor’s hooded eyes are bright with enthusiasm.
At this point I experience that rare feeling — a welling-up of patriotic pride. Just the thought of the BM lending worldwide, helping struggling cultures understand their history — and for free, because these artefacts belong to us all. It’s almost enough to make a person believe that Britain could be great again.
If I were David Cameron, I think, and ideologically wedded to the idea of a Big Society, I might think of the BM as the ultimate player in the ultimate Big Society: a worldwide one. But ‘what’s so interesting’ is that it’s a player which will always need the government to support it. If anyone can raise private money, MacGregor can, but no philanthropist, however benevolent, wants to pay for running costs. ‘I think this is concerning,’ says MacGregor, for once looking unsure. ‘All the evidence is that public and private support go hand-in-hand. There can be huge private support for exhibitions, but on the understanding that the government will take care of the daily running costs and keep the collection in good shape, to care for it, curate it. It’s different from the performing arts. If you try to scale these things back, once you do, it’s very hard to recover.’
Neil MacGregor looks into the distance, perhaps forward to the spending review; or maybe to the exhibitions he has planned — on Afghanistan, cleverly scheduled for 2011, just as we’re pulling out; on the history of the Hajj — which of course will be as close as non-Muslims ever get to experiencing it. That should be invaluable to a government, shouldn’t it? I say. Especially one that’s struggling with a multicultural society? ‘One has got to be terribly careful about not sounding too Pollyanna-ish about the value of these things,’ says Neil MacGregor, ‘but there is a great, great value, of that I’m absolutely certain.’