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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How London fever beat New York lucre

By Norman Lebrecht / July 2, 2008

Hang out the bunting and sound a carillon of bells. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has confirmed he won't leave London for all the gold in New York, where the Metropolitan Museum has reportedly offered the notably frugal curator his body weight in ochre, and then some.

Why the joy? Because MacGregor, 62, has in six short years turned around the BM from international basket case to the busiest showcase for civilisation anywhere on earth. Its First Emperor exhibition drew 850,000 paying visitors while six million more claimed free entry to the general galleries, where one can find anything from Ancient Sumerian inscriptions to post-modern American art.

The BM, back on top of its game, is leading a British mission to teach curating skills to the developing world. It is also rewriting the schools history syllabus by following the Terracotta Warriors with Hadrian's World and a subsequent exploration of the pre-Greek culture of the Persian Empire. With the BM at its helm London has regained world dominance in the field of museums and galleries, a field that attracts more millions of visitors each year than all spectator sports put together.

But that's only half the story. The BM is as busy as it is because MacGregor learned his craft as director of the National Gallery in a city where art is diverse and uniquely competitive, where Tate Britain vies at the turnstile not only with the National Gallery but with its own Tate Modern wing and with countless independents - Whitechapel, Serpentine, Saatchi - that claim ownership of 21st century art. London has the Victoria and Albert, surely the most eclectic collection ever assembled under one roof, while its Natural History and Science museums have as much an eye on the future as on the past.

The legend of London museums is usually one of straitened means, of treasures that may be sold abroad if we cannot afford to buy them. The other side of that legend is a canny resourcefulness that enables a nation of limited public means to keep most of its glories intact and attract ever-rising numbers of viewers. MacGregor is fond of reminding us that Parliament endowed the British Museum 255 years ago as every citizen's inalienable right to knowledge.

Beside such values, the virtues of rival cities turn to pallor. Paris has suffered a severe cultural embarrassment with Jacques Chirac's Museum of Four Continents. Berlin is hiring British architects to upgrade its Museums Island. New York, the richest of museum cities, has been marking time in its monolithic way. It has a Met for old art and MOMA for new, but none of the ferment that characterises the London scene. It was no surprise that the Met went after MacGregor with a golden offer, or that he turned it down flat. What has London got that Manhattan lacks? Innovation, enterprise and the constant zest of intense competition.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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