Wednesday, September 22, 2021

My hero: Neil MacGregor by Grayson Perry

Neil MacGregor: 'Perhaps his greatest skill is that of communication.'
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian


My hero: 

Neil MacGregor by Grayson Perry

The retiring director of the British Museum transformed a stately institution into a cultural powerhouse


Friday 10 April 2015


N

eil MacGregor was already a mythic figure in my imagination when I first met him in 2008. He had played a big part in the transformation of the British Museum from stately, if a little dusty, institution into a powerhouse of cultural diplomacy, almost a wing of government, as well as an even more popular tourist destination. Neil was the major museum director’s major museum director. He is effortlessly learned, an astute diplomat and above all a lovely, lovely man.

I sort of engineered our first meeting after I heard him talk to a small group where he gently berated the clergy of St Paul’s for charging entry fees. Afterwards we all went for supper at Pizza Express and I spotted an opportunity and sat down next to him. As casually as I could, I dropped in that I had an idea for an exhibition. Neil said: “Send me a letter,” and three years later my show, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, opened. It is still my proudest achievement and its passage through the souk of fiefdoms that is the BM I’m sure was much eased by Neil’s initial enthusiasm.

Over the course of curating that exhibition I visited every department of the museum and met many of the staff. Not once did I hear even a muttered bad word about Neil. They cherished him, and were very protective of him. Not only did he help the museum become where “the world meets the world”, he championed it as a lending library for institutions worldwide and also a global centre of learning and expertise.

Perhaps his greatest skill is that of communication. I have heard him speak on many occasions and he is in turn mischievous, erudite, gracious and charming, with the tones of a twinkly, all too knowing Church of England bishop. His landmark radio series The History of the World in 100 Objects illustrated his gift for telling the big story in a gripping and accessible way and is a lesson all arts broadcasters could heed. On Wednesday morning he personally gathered the staff together to announce his retirement as he wanted them to know before the press. The news was met by a sustained standing ovation and some tears.

I have just been appointed a trustee of the BM; I love the place and its eight million objects and I’m very sad he’s leaving. Like Manchester United and Alex Ferguson, its going to take a while for the museum to get over my hero Neil MacGregor. 

THE GUARDIAN




2009
001 My hero / Oscar Wilde by Michael Holroyd
002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler 
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm

2010

017 My hero / Jack Yeats by Colm Tóibín
018 My hero / Francisco Goya by Diana Athill
019 My hero / Max Stafford-Clark by Sebastian Barry
020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

036 My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
040 My hero / Annie Proulx by Alan Warner

041 My hero / David Lynch by Paul Murray
042 My hero / Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford
043 My hero / Anne Lister by Emma Donoghue
044 My hero / Jane Helen Harrinson by Mary Beard
045 My hero / Edmund Burke by David Marquand
046 My hero / Shelagh Deleaney by Jeanette Winterson
047 My hero / Christopher Marlowe by Val McDermid
048 My hero / Gwen John by Anne Enright
049 My hero / Michael Mayne by Susan Hill
050 My hero / Stanley Spencer by Howard Jacobson

051 My hero / William Beveridge by Will Hutton
052 My hero / Jean McConville by Amanda Foreman
053 My hero / Alexander Pushkin by Elaine Feinstein
054 My hero / Michael de Montaigne by Liyun Li
055 My hero / Michael Donaghy by Maggie O'Farrell
056 My hero / Richmal Crompton by Louise Crompton
057 My hero / Edward Thomas by David Constantine
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal
059 My hero / Sefton by Jilly Cooper

2011
079 My hero / Gene Wolfe by Neil Gaiman
087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
096 My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
097 Lucian Freud by Esi Edugyan
100 Thomas Tranströmer by Robin Robertson
102 My hero / David Hockney by Susan Hill

2012

190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
194 My hero / René Descartes by James Kelman
199 My hero / Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer

2015
250 My hero John Bayley by Richard Eyre

2016



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