April 9, 2015

The book that changed a museum


A bestselling book about old scraps.

A bestselling book about old scraps.

The Director of London’s British Museum, Neil MacGregor is to step down from his job at the end of this year. MacGregor has been at the helm of the institution since 2002, and made his announcement on Wednesday, writing about his sadness in leaving what has been “the greatest privilege of my professional life” in order to retire from full-time employment.

Reactions to MacGregor’s announcement have been passionate because what he managed to achieve in his 12 years in the job has been nothing short of extraordinary. As Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian, “It is hard to remember how irrelevant the British Museum seemed before Neil MacGregor saved it.” There is a lot of talk about the importance of museums and galleries for the public, but less talk about how crucial it is for an institution to present its collection so that it continues to be regarded as significant and valuable.

This is especially the case for the British Museum. Full of the British Empire’s spoils, the museum’s collection is the definition of an embarrassment of riches (except when it comes to British history, goes the ironic joke). It needs organisation, focus and a strong guiding hand – not least to navigate the historical disputes of who stole what from whom, and the grander questions about its continued existence. Before MacGregor, the museum lacked purpose and agenda, and its exhibitions were in the words of Jones, “often dull or silly”.

MacGregor changed that, with exhibitions that managed to link the past to the present. The artist Grayson Perry was one of the people who tweeted his alarm at the news of MacGregor’s departure. His exhibition in 2011/2012 —in which he showed his own ceramics alongside objects made by unknown men and women from the museum’s collection— typified MacGregor’s approach. The exhibition was fresh, witty and exploratory, and brought out connections between new and old; it also pushed Perry’s career into the mainstream.

But MacGregor’s career at the British Museum is of particular interest to the publishing industry because of one book: A History of the World in 100 Objects, written by MacGregor and published in 2010. MacGregor picked 100 objects from the museum and in describing and contextualising each one, he aimed to tell the story of both a museum, and human civilization. Launched in association with BBC Radio 4, which broadcast 100 15-segments on each entry, the project was compared Kenneth Clark’s now-classic TV series Civilisation: the radio programmes have been downloaded over 40million times, and the book was a bestseller.

We discussed recently the question of what should and should not be a book. MacGregor’s book justified its own existence while also being the greatest ever advertisement for a museum. It redefined what a museum catalogue could be (it could be more than a catalogue!). It also provided an easy way to navigate a labyrinthine building. Through the book’s publication and the radio series, MacGregor brought the British Museum to its audience, rather than expecting its audience to come to it. After the project, they did of course, in their droves. As MacGregor leaves, the British Museum has been the most visited attraction in the UK for eight years running and is the second most visited museum in the world, with a virtual audience of over 35 million.

Back in his old job as director of the National Gallery, MacGregor was dubbed “Saint Neil”. This is not just because he is a devout Christian, but because of his widespread popularity at that gallery. He worked miracles at the British Museum. But he also pulled off a publishing coup: a bestselling history book about an old museum, that re-imagined what a museum could do and a museum book could be.




Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.