Today it was announced that British Museum Director Neil MacGregor will step down at the end of 2015. This will come as a shock to most. Certainly since within the last year the heads of two of Britain’s most respectable cultural institutions, the National Gallery (Nicholas Penny) and the National Portrait Gallery (Sandy Nairne), have also announced their imminent retirement. Already most reports are commenting on MacGregor’s successful tenure at the Museum, most notably by transforming it from a ‘stuffy’ old-fashioned depot into a cutting edge – and immensely popular – London landmark, not to mention bringing attendance figures up from 4.6 million to nearly 7 million.
But perhaps the most lasting mark the Director has made has more to do with the collection itself and its global visibility. By increasing the number and importance of international loans, MacGregor helped widen the audience for certain key artefacts, such as the Cyrus Cylinder (lent to Iran in 2012) or the Ilissos statue (controversially lent to Russia in December 2014), even if the loans didn’t always play out as planned (see the Bark Etchings case of 2004). In the last reported year, the Museum lent over 5,000 objects to 335 institutions, both in the UK and abroad. Perhaps his policy marked a turn towards increased cultural sharing – with loans not just from the British Museum, but from other ‘universal museums’ as well. If so, the question remains: will the policy continue under his successor?