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The Director as Cultural Diplomat

Neil MacGregor unveils the Ilissos marble at the Hermitage, St Petersburg. Photograph: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP. Source: The Guardian.

John Wilson, ‘On the road with Neil MacGregor, the man who uses culture to win friends’ The Guardian, 7 December 2014

Neil MacGregor chose his words with characteristic care and wit as he unveiled the river god Ilissos in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, alongside an icy river Neva. “The more chilly the politics between governments, the more important the relationship between museums,” he argued, anticipating accusations that he was handing Vladimir Putin a propaganda gift in marble.

The loan of an ancient Greek figure from the Parthenon (aka Elgin) marbles collection – the first time any part of the 2,500-year-old sculptures has left the British Museum – was indeed a gift, but one intended to celebrate the 250th birthday of a close relative. Opening five years apart in the mid-18th century, the British Museum and the Hermitage are “sisters, almost twins”, MacGregor explained.

While making documentaries for Radio 4’s Front Row, I’ve watched MacGregor at close quarters as he skilfully tiptoes through political minefields. I travelled with him to China in 2007 as he negotiated the biggest foreign loan of the terracotta warriors. I was also with him on two trips to Iran at a time when diplomatic relations were not simply chilly but nonexistent.

The phrases “cultural diplomacy” and “soft power” sit uncomfortably with the man who has been the director of the British Museum since 2002. Despite having sent more of the museum’s eight million objects on global trips than any of his predecessors, he’s cautious of being seen as a commissar of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s cultural wing.

For MacGregor, cultural exchanges between nations transcend political dispute. He passionately believes that the museum must lead the way, being the first institution to bring the whole world under one roof. As director of the most historically rich and diverse repository of human achievement in the world, MacGregor says he cannot be responsible for all theobjects in the British Museum collection without engaging with the countries from where the things originally came. In the last year alone, about 5,000 objects have left Bloomsbury on loan, half of which have been borrowed by 140 overseas museums.

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