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


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. 


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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

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020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

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054 My hero / Michael de Montaigne by Liyun Li
055 My hero / Michael Donaghy by Maggie O'Farrell
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