Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
If a week is a long time in politics, four years is an eternity in the life of a cultural institution. In August 2002, when Neil MacGregor took over as Director, the British Museum was facing a £5 million shortfall, a rash of strikes and a level of public apathy so dire that not a media peep was heard over a crippling 30 percent shrinkage in its government grant. So weakened was the Museum that the Greeks mounted a huge campaign to get their Marbles back for the 2004 Olympics.
Today, queues snake round the perimeter for major openings, the Greeks have lost the argument and the Museum recently stayed open until midnight to accommodate the rush of interest in its second most successful-ever exhibition in successive years – after Ancient Persia, an eye-opening show of shavings from Michelangelo’s drawing board, his masterpieces in sketch form.
To effect these attitudinal changes, MacGregor, 60 last month, was obliged to transform himself from the rather austere art scholar who ruled the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square into a shirt-sleeved powerhouse of public enlightenment, beaming around his courts and galleries morning, noon and night, tweaking everything from the tenebrous prints room, just opened after relighting, to the dreary restaurant, now in the hands of an outstanding Viennese caterer. Adjust and charm has been MacGregor’s motto for the past four years. Now he’s going for the big idea.
In 2007 the BM will stage the greatest exhibition outside China of treasures of the First Emperor, the tyrant who unified the country and established its script and civilisation some 300 years before Christianity. Qin-chi, known to the world for the 8,000 terracotta warriors that were entombed to protect him in the afterlife, was not a man receptive to contradiction. When the Confucians opposed him, he had ten philosophers buried alive. His rule, says MacGregor, ‘was a choice between central autocracy and warlord chaos - and that is central to our understanding of China in the modern world. There has been very little public thinking on this.’
That statement contains the core of the BM’s revival - the synergies that MacGregor finds or artificially draws between ancient objects and current affairs, whether in Iran and Iraq (where he led the drive to protect the Baghdad Museum) or in China where he is running a one-man mission of mutual edification. ‘You may not be aware,’ he remarks, ‘that the national curriculum is due for revision in 2008. Every child in Britain learns about ancient Egypt, but for some reason there is no requirement to teach this other great civilisation, of which there are traces in every museum in the land. Everyone says China is the future. We cannot afford to ignore it.’
Shuttling back and forth, he is setting up ‘Britain meets the World’ in Beijing’s Palace Museum next March, an exhibition requested by the Chinese to demonstrate how Britain became a world power. The BM’s Assyrian collection has just opened in Shanghai. When Beijing’s Capital Museum staged ‘Treasures of the World from the British Museum’, everything from Chinese hand axes to David Hockney, it drew quarter of a million paying visitors at £7 a head. The Chinese appetite for culture is intense, says MacGregor, who is busily organising behind-the-scenes curatorial exchanges – their experts to catalogue our Chinese art, our horologists to wind up their 18th century English clocks and navigation aids, the biggest set on earth.
The Chinese, says MacGregor, have an acute awareness of British achievement and the importance of London. ‘They know that the Eurostar opens at St Pancras next year and the British Museum is the nearest venue. They expect us to attract visitors from all over Europe. This exhibition shows, after all, the greatest discovery since Tutankhamun.’
Under prevailing conditions, the Museum has no room for a blockbuster show and would have to turn thousands away. Its ground-floor exhibition area admits 200 people at a time and, though both Persia and Michelangelo topped 100,000, China will need twice as much space and will draw much bigger crowds. MacGregor has a solution which is as radical as it is logical and, inevitably, controversial.
He will be telling museum staff today (Wed) that he plans to take over the circular Reading Room, where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, and by dropping a false ceiling over the famous reading desks, create a temporary gallery of 1,000 square metres for the China show. The cost will be £1.5 to £2 million (Morgan Stanley are the lead sponsor), along with the disappearance of a sentimental relic that has been, in MacGregor’s words, ‘tragically underused’ since the British Library’s departure to Euston a decade ago. It sole purpose is as a place where visitors can consult books about BM collections. ‘The public are terrified by it,’ says the Director.
At noon on a typical weekday, I find the room deserted yet still imprinted with that prohibitive aura which, to me among many researchers, made prison seem infinitely more welcoming. The Room was neither loved by users, nor conducive to creative thought. English Heritage has signalled its consent to the proposed submersion and Camden Council has no obvious grounds for refusing planning permission.
Few, however, expect the plan to pass uncontested. Curators at the BM are resistant to disturbance and backwoods traditionalists and backbench MPs will doubtless rally in support of the dodo. Stand by for a tabloid outcry, the anti-literate in defence of the unread, before the Reading Room is finally submersed.
MacGregor, with the guile of a lawyer long experienced in public affairs, insists that the adaptation is temporary. His ultimate aim is to create an exhibition wing at the right extremity of the building, presently a storage depot. But by the time the China exhibition closes, the Reading Room will have passed into history and the public mind will have moved on to the next big idea - a Hadrian exhibition for 2008. MacGregor cannot resist the observation that the Roman Emperor shipped troops from Basra to pacify the English north.
It is with such symmetries that the world comes full circle at the British Museum. In contrast to President Jacques Chirac’s embarrassing new Museum of Four Continents at the Quai Branly, a lame excuse for displaying primitive collections, the glory of the British Museum in a multicultural world is that it does not pit one civilisation against another: all human history is there, without precedence or preference. As the Chinese pack their clay warriors in padded coffins for a leap into unintended afterlife, the BM has begun gearing up for its biggest venture in two and a half centuries.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]