On the street with Neil MacGregor, the guy who employs culture to win buddies

Neil MacGregor chose his phrases 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 among governments, the a lot more crucial the romantic relationship in between museums,” he argued, anticipating accusations that he was handing Vladimir Putin a propaganda present in marble.

The loan of an ancient Greek figure from the Parthenon (aka Elgin) marbles collection – the first time any part of the two,500-year-previous sculptures has left the British Museum – was without a doubt a present, but one particular intended to celebrate the 250th birthday of a near relative. Opening 5 years apart in the mid-18th century, the British Museum and the Hermitage are “sisters, nearly twins”, MacGregor explained.

Whilst creating documentaries for Radio 4’s Front Row, I’ve watched MacGregor at close quarters as he skilfully tiptoes by way of political minefields. I travelled with him to China in 2007 as he negotiated the largest foreign loan of the terracotta warriors. I was also with him on two trips to Iran at a time when diplomatic relations have been 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 given that 2002. Despite having sent far more of the museum’s eight million objects on global trips than any of his predecessors, he’s cautious of currently 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 should lead the way, becoming the 1st institution to bring the entire globe underneath one roof. As director of the most historically rich and diverse repository of human achievement in the world, MacGregor says he can not be responsible for all theobjects in the British Museum collection without having engaging with the nations from the place the factors initially came. In the final year alone, about 5,000 objects have left Bloomsbury on loan, half of which have been borrowed by 140 overseas museums.

Unveiling Ilissos in St Petersburg on Thursday – to the fury, it has to be explained, of the Greek government – MacGregor talked of nations and museums. But the essential to his global mission to loan and lend is forging personalized contacts with individuals. The British Museum has pioneered training programmes for young curators to produce an international network of scholars. Practically 200 curators, from countries which includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan, have studied in London in the last 10 years. And these personal contacts go all the way to the prime. The purpose that the Hermitage is the recipient of an unprecedented loan of a component of the marbles is simply because of the near romantic relationship MacGregor has forged with his extended-standing Russian counterpart, Mikhail Piotrovsky.

MacGregor has impeccable manners and makes it his mission to demonstrate thanks to foreign hosts. A single morning in 2007, shortly prior to we boarded a flight to Beijing, he informed me he required to pop into duty-totally free. “Bit early, is not it?” I advised as he scanned the shelves and picked a fine single malt. “It’s for our host,” he mentioned, “and so is this.” Reaching into his hand luggage, he pulled out a DVD with a sword-wielding, blue-faced Mel Gibson on the cover. Discreet pre-trip inquires had exposed that the director of China’s cultural relics bureau was a huge fan of Braveheart and liked nothing better than to view it whilst sipping a wee dram.

MacGregor arrived in the city of Xi’an, residence to the terracotta warriors, armed with Scottish goodwill. The speech he produced as he handed more than his presents to the director for the duration of a dinner the following evening was greeted with joyous applause. The deal was sealed. The guardians of the Qin Shi Huang, the initial emperor of China, were heading to London along with other treasures that had never left the museum in Xi’an, allow alone travelled abroad.

It was striking that all through the meal, and as many toasts had been raised to cultural partnership, a large Tv display was left on in the corner of the dining space. It showed a reside relay from Beijing in which the Central Committee was meeting to ratify the latest government edicts, like proposals for closer economic and political engagement with the west. It was clear that our hosts felt duty-bound to hold one eye on the power base.

Later that evening, in excess of a beer in a hotel bar, I wondered aloud if MacGregor’s connection with the British government was not so dissimilar. Following all, the terracotta deal had come in the wake of a earlier trip he had created to China in 2005 with prime minister Tony Blair. Had been artwork and culture just becoming used to grease the wheels of global trade and politics?

The guy who turned down a knighthood, fearful it could compromise his independence, bristled at the suggestion that he was carrying out any government’s bidding. “The government does not fund the British Museum to do something here in China,” he mentioned with a unusual flash of impatience. “But if great bilateral political relations can aid motivate far better cultural conversations across continents, that have to certainly be helpful for everybody.”

He is also a firm believer that it functions both techniques – that cultural knowing can help develop diplomatic bridges across broad political divides. In January 2009, I was with him in Tehran as he ready to signal papers that would safe the release of treasures relating to 16th-century Persian ruler Shah Abbas. The British Museum exhibition would reveal how the roots of contemporary Shia Iran can be traced back to the reign of the biggest leader of the Safavid dynasty.

We had arrived in Tehran after a 6-hour minibus drive by way of the desert from Isfahan, exactly where Shah Abbas constructed his capital. En route, MacGregor immersed himself in the most current Chatham Residence reports on Iran. It did not search very good. Political relations with Britain have been expanding increasingly frosty, the temperature obtaining plummeted soon after the launch of the BBC’s Persia support had prompted a furious denouncement of British “spies” in the nation. As a BBC journalist I had been warned that I wouldn’t be welcomed into an Iranian government building. I’d probably have to wait in the minibus. Fine, I replied, much better than Evin prison. “Oh, I believe you will be Okay,” Neil assured me.

As it was, in a bizarre moment of mistranslated confusion, I was not only ushered into the conference room but then invited to sit at the prime table as MacGregor faced a delegation of Iranian heritage chiefs and museum bosses, headed by one of President Ahmadinejad’s trusted deputies. A miniature Iranian flag sat alongside the union jack at a single finish of the table. In earlier weeks, the only British flags witnessed in public in Tehran were people burning on the streets outdoors the embassy. “Well that is a result,” MacGregor whispered with a giggle as I took my seat alongside him.

The British Museum guy presented an eloquent case for the loan of priceless sculptures, ornaments and silk carpets, most of which would be leaving Iran for the 1st time. The Iranian deputy vice-president, sensing goodwill in the space, sprung an sudden quid professional quo deal on MacGregor – you get Shah Abbas if we can have Cyrus the Great. He wanted the Cyrus cylinder – which is regarded by some historians as the initial declaration of human rights. Designed on the orders of the Persian king who invaded Babylon and freed the people from slavery and tyranny, the clay object is a sort of 2,500-year-outdated Middle East roadmap. The small cuneiform lettering data, in Babylonian, how each man, female and little one would now be free of charge to practise their culture and religion. The declaration, produced in 539BC, allowed the Jews, who’d been enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, to return residence.

MacGregor responded right away that the British Museum was happy to think about the loan of any of the objects in its care, nonetheless precious, and that he would pass on the request to his trustees.

When the Cyrus cylinder went on show the following year, 2010, at the Nationwide Museum of Iran it attracted more than half a million men and women. I returned to Tehran with MacGregor at the end of the 7-month loan to reclaim the object.

Youthful Iranians had been keen to tell me that the little clay object represented hope for their nation. Glancing about nervously at the museum guards, 1 woman was tearful as she advised me that looking at the cylinder was “like hunting at a 3D TV”. She stated her heart was beating quickly with pleasure since the pre-Islamic background of her nation was not taught in schools. One more woman told me the broken object was like a piece of a puzzle – “a puzzle, happiness and freedom”. The cylinder was not just an ancient relic but a symbol of the potential, she mentioned: “It reminds us that we can be cost-free, we will be free of charge.”

It was a moving endorsement of MacGregor’s cultural mission. He may possibly be charming, eloquent, enthusiastic, but he understands it’s the historical objects – the items – that do the real speaking.

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