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Polyglot European, Convinced Cosmopolitan and Globetrotter

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum and designated Chair of the Advisory Board to the Humboldt Forum, will deliver the Queen’s Lecture

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, London
Lupe

It is not just the guests at this year’s Queen’s Lecture who are full of anticipation for Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, but the whole of Berlin – or at least all those interested in culture. A few weeks ago, he accepted an offer from the Minister of State for Culture, Monika Grütters, to become Chair of the Advisory Board to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin’s City Palace. The Humboldt Forum will not open as a Museum of World Culture until the Palace reconstruction work has been completed in 2019, but Neil MacGregor will take up his post in Berlin in October 2015 because “good things take time”. There are high expectations for the concept of this Museum which has global ambitions.

Berlin could hardly have found a better man for this challenge than Neil MacGregor, currently Director of the venerable British Museum, which was founded in 1753. With 6.7 million annual visitors, the British Museum is the most visited attraction in the UK. It has a virtual audience of 35 million people. And that is primarily thanks to the history, philosophy and law graduate MacGregor. Over the past eight years, he and his team have increased annual visitor figures by more than 2 million. Each year, over 270,000 school children visit the renowned cultural institution, where they are taken on a journey through the past, present and future.

MacGregor has the unique ability to impart knowledge about culture and history in an instructive and entertaining way. He reveals important links, the big connections and influences between the past and the present, between cultures around the globe and presents them clearly through the precise observation of museum artefacts. He has demonstrated this inter alia in three major exhibition and radio projects which have attracted an audience of millions in recent years. They were all bestselling books as well. The first was “A History of the World in 100 Objects” which told the story of Mankind from its beginnings two million years ago through to the present day. He explained museum objects from Stone Age tools to the credit card – the complex processes of how they originated and how they are used. In 2012 he published “Shakespeare’s Restless World” in which he illuminated the political, religious and economic changes of the Elizabethan era through objects from William Shakespeare’s time.

The third project – the exhibition and radio series ended in January 2015 – was something particularly close to the heart of the Museum Director and self-confessed Germany fan: “Germany: Memories of a Nation”. Here too, he used objects from the past and the present to explain Germany’s difficult process of finding its identity throughout its eventful history, especially following reunification. The British public, who often associate Germany with National Socialism or Prussia, thus saw the contradictions of German culture, how Germany has dealt with its past and how it has developed into the centre of Europe.

But his activities are as global as his vision. He has coordinated international museum efforts to rescue cultural treasures under threat from permanent destruction in crisis regions throughout the world. He is a member of the international scientific advisory board at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and advises the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, in the heart of Mumbai which is also on the way to becoming a cultural institute of world renown.

The 68-year-old globetrotter has had prizes heaped upon him – the Queen personally awarded him the Order of Merit. In 2008 the Times bestowed on him the title “Briton of the Year”. He has also come to the attention of German institutions. In 2010, he was the first recipient of the International Folkwang Prize from the Museum Folkwang in Essen. In May 2015, the German Academy for Language and Poetry awarded the “polyglot European and convinced cosmopolitan” the Friedrich Gundolf Prize for conveying German culture abroad. In mid-June, he will receive the German National Prize from the German National Foundation for his work to improve the understanding of Germany in the UK.

Neil MacGregor, born in 1946, studied modern languages at Oxford, philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and law in Edinburgh. He taught art history and architecture at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and at the University of Reading. Since August 2002, he has been Director of the British Museum where his main focus has been on the development of regional and international partnerships.

Patricia Pätzold

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