Neil MacGregor

This article is about the museum director Neil MacGregor. For the similarly named footballer, see Neil McGregor. For the film director, see Neil McGregor (film director).
Neil MacGregor

MacGregor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015
Born Robert Neil MacGregor
(1946-06-16) 16 June 1946
Glasgow, Scotland
Education The Glasgow Academy, Scotland
Alma mater New College, Oxford
École Normale Supérieure
University of Edinburgh
Courtauld Institute of Art
Occupation Art historian and museum director
Parent(s) Alexander MacGregor
Anna MacGregor

Robert Neil MacGregor, OM, AO, FSA (born 16 June 1946) is a British art historian and former museum director. He was the editor of the Burlington Magazine from 1981 to 1987, then Director of the National Gallery, London, from 1987 to 2002, and finally Director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015.[1]


Neil MacGregor was born in Glasgow to two doctors, Alexander and Anna MacGregor. At the age of nine, he first saw Salvador Dalí's Christ of Saint John of the Cross, newly acquired by Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery, which had a profound effect on him and sparked his lifelong interest in art. MacGregor was educated at Glasgow Academy and then read modern languages at New College, Oxford, where he is now an honorary fellow.

The period that followed was spent studying philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (coinciding with the events of May 1968), and as a law student at Edinburgh University, where he received the Green Prize. Despite being called to the bar in 1972, MacGregor next decided to take an art history degree. The following year, on a Courtauld Institute (University of London) summer school in Bavaria, the Courtauld's director Anthony Blunt spotted MacGregor and persuaded him to take a master's degree under his supervision.[2] Blunt later considered MacGregor "the most brilliant pupil he ever taught".[3]

From 1975 to 1981, MacGregor taught History of Art and Architecture at the University of Reading. He left to assume the editorship of The Burlington Magazine. He oversaw the transfer of the magazine from the Thomson Corporation to an independent and charitable status.[4]

In 1987 MacGregor became a highly successful director of the National Gallery in London. There he was dubbed "Saint Neil", partly because of his popularity at that institution and partly because of his devout Christianity. During his directorship, MacGregor presented three BBC television series on art: Painting the World in 1995, Making Masterpieces, a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Gallery, in 1997 and Seeing Salvation, on the representation of Jesus in western art, in 2000. He declined the offer of a knighthood in 1999, the first director of the National Gallery to do so.[5]

Directorship of the British Museum

MacGregor was made director of the British Museum in August 2002, at a time when that institution was £5 million in deficit. He has been lauded for his "diplomatic" approach to the post, though MacGregor rejects this description, stating that "diplomat is conventionally taken to mean the promotion of the interests of a particular state and that is not what we are about at all".[5]

Holding his office during a period which has seen the Acropolis Museum constructed in Athens, he has consistently argued against returning the British Museum's sculptures from the Parthenon (the "Elgin Marbles") to Greece. He has stated that it is the British Museum's duty to "preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol"[6] and that "there is no legal system in Europe that would challenge the [British Museum's] legal title" to the works.[7]

In January 2008, MacGregor was appointed chairman of the World Collections programme, for training international curators at British museums.[8] The exhibition The First Emperor, focussing on Qin Shi Huang and including a small number of his Terracotta Warriors, was mounted in 2008 in the British Museum Reading Room. That year MacGregor was invited to succeed Philippe de Montebello as the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He declined the offer as the Metropolitan charges its visitors for entry and is thus "not a public institution".[5]

His tenure included many exhibitions that were more provocative than the museum had previously done or told stories from unique perspectives that were notably less Eurocentric than previous exhibits, including a project celebrating the Hajj. He similarly made comments that sparked debate, such as his claim that the ancient Persian empire was greater than Ancient Greece.[9]

In 2010, MacGregor presented a series on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on objects from the British Museum's collection.[10]

From September 2010 to January 2011 the British Museum lent the ancient Persian Cyrus Cylinder to an exhibition in Tehran. This was seen by at least a million visitors by the Museum's estimation, more than any loan exhibition to the United Kingdom had attracted since the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972.[11]

As of 2015, MacGregor was paid a salary of between £190,000 and £194,999 by the British Museum, making him one of the 328 most highly paid people in the British public sector at that time.[12] MacGregor retired from the post in December 2015 and was succeeded in Spring 2016 by Hartwig Fischer, director of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.[13]

Media projects

MacGregor has made many programmes for British television and radio. In the year 2000, he presented on television Seeing Salvation, about how Jesus had been depicted in famous paintings. More recently, he has made important contributions on BBC Radio Four, including A History of the World in 100 Objects and, in 2012, a series of fifteen-minute programmes after The World at One called Shakespeare's Restless World, discussing themes in the plays of William Shakespeare.[14]

At the end of September 2014 UK domestic transmission started of his similarly formatted Talk Radio series Germany: Memories of a Nation.[15]


On 8 April 2015, MacGregor announced his resignation as Director of the British Museum.[16] In a statement issued by the British Museum, MacGregor reported that in retirement he will be chairing an Advisory Board to make recommendations to the German Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, on how the Berlin Palace–Humboldtforum Foundation, drawing on the Berlin collections, can become a place where world cultures can be explored and debated.[17] In addition, he will be working on a BBC Radio Four series on Faith and Society, and liaising with Mr. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, on the presentation of world cultures.[18]

Personal life

He was listed in The Independent's 2007 list of "most influential gay people"[19] and was single as of January 2010.[20] On 4 November 2010 MacGregor was appointed to the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II.[21] On 25 March 2013 MacGregor was appointed an Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) by the Governor-General of Australia Quentin Bryce, "for service to promoting Australia and Australian art in the United Kingdom".[22]



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Reviews and Criticism of MacGregor's work

A history of the world in 100 objects
  • Gerard Vaughan (June 2011). "A good place to start : radio inspires a volume of transcendent objects". Australian Book Review (332): 47–48. 

See also


  1. 8 April 2015
  2. Carter, Miranda (8 November 2001). "Spy who came in from the Courtauld". The Independent. London. Retrieved 12 August 2009.
  3. Adams, Tim (8 June 2003). "His place in history". The Observer. London. Retrieved 18 July 2009.
  4. "(Robert) Neil MacGregor". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  5. 1 2 3 Campbell-Johnson, Rachel (27 December 2008). "Briton of the Year: Neil MacGregor". The Times. London. Retrieved 18 July 2009.
  6. Pierce, Andrew (11 May 2009). "Greek government unveils new home for Elgin Marbles". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 4 November 2014.
  7. Lacayo, Richard (5 November 2007). "A Talk: With Neil MacGregor". Time. Retrieved 4 November 2014.
  8. "Neil Macgregor to chair 'World collections programme', to share British cultural excellence with Africa and Asia". United Kingdom Government News. 18 January 2008. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  9. Jonathan Jones, Neil MacGregor saved the British Museum. It’s time to reinvent it again, the Guardian, 8 April 2015.
  10. "The Story of Humanity Told Through '100 Objects'". PBS NewsHour. [PBS]. 7 November 2011. Retrieved 6 May 2012.
  11. Hoyle, Ben (18 April 2008). "Negotiations over first bill of rights allows access to Ahmedinejad regime". The Times (Syndicated in The Australian). Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  12. "Senior officials 'high earners' salaries as at 30 September 2015 - GOV.UK". 2015-12-17. Retrieved 2016-03-13.
  13. "Hartwig Fischer confirmed as British Museum director". BBC News. 29 September 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  14. "Shakespeare's Restless World". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
  15. Neil MacGregorBBC Radio 4. "Germany: Memories of a Nation". Retrieved 1 October 2014.
  16. retrieved 27 May 2015.
  17. Knight, Ben; Brown, Mark. "Appointment of Neil MacGregor as head of Humboldt Forum silences critics". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-30.
  18. British Museum Press Release: retrieved 30 May 2015.
  19. "The pink list 2007: The IoS annual celebration of the great and the gay". The Independent. London. 6 May 2007.
  20. Susanna Rustin (2 January 2010). "The greatest exhibition you could have | Culture". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
  21. Buckingham Palace. "Mr Neil MacGregor appointed to the Order of Merit, 4 November 2010". The Royal Household. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  22. It's an HOnour: AO. Retrieved 28 August 2015
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