British Museum’s Director Follows a Fascination to Germany


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“I began in and with the language, and it keeps going back to language.” NEIL MacGREGOR

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Andrew Testa for The New York Times

LONDON — Neil MacGregor, soft-spoken and private, finds Germany an endless puzzle and a continuing fascination, a land whose language, art and history have shaped Europe for centuries, and yet remains almost terra incognita for most Britons.

At 69, Mr. MacGregor has long been cherished as one of Britain’s most accomplished cultural figures and has had a strong impact on at least two major institutions. Now, he is leaving the British Museum, which he has transformed as its director, and is decamping professionally to Germany. There, he will help to shape one of that country’s most audacious cultural projects, the Humboldt Forum, intended to frame Germany’s historical and artistic relationship with the world.

He is already considered Britain’s prime interlocutor with Germany. Last year, he curated a popular exhibition, “Germany: Memories of a Nation,” intended to help explain the Germans to the British, and perhaps also to themselves, on themes built around objects and individuals — Luther for language; Dürer for art; the gate of Buchenwald for cultural and political sadism and brutality; the sausage as a symbol of diversity.

The exhibition drew 114,000 people, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and an accompanying radio series he did for the BBC has been downloaded five million times. An associated book, clearly written and lavishly illustrated, has now been published in the United States.

Mr. MacGregor’s fascination with Germany began as a child, born in 1946 in Glasgow to Alexander and Anna, who were doctors and involved in the war — his father in the navy and his mother in Plymouth, during the severe German bombing of that crucial port.

Yet his parents never lost their love for the Continent, for France and Germany, “and for them the reconnection with the Continent was a very important thing,” Mr. MacGregor said.

“They were very much of the generation committed to making a new kind of world, and for them that meant a new kind of Europe,” he said.

Reminiscing in his light-filled office at the British Museum, which he helped to make Britain’s most popular attraction, with 6.7 million visitors a year, he said that “we all grew up not so much in the shadow of the Second World War, but in its presence.”

“Every grown-up talked about it, and from early childhood we lived with the consequences,” he said — the rationing, the shortages, the hurt and maimed.

His parents “were entirely British and entirely Scottish, and so had no difficulties with several overlapping identities,” he said, and Glasgow itself had a lively population of German émigrés, many of them Jewish, who had fled the Nazis and whose children were among his classmates. And he had a revered language teacher from Central Europe who had them translating German into French at the age of 13.

“He was fascinated by the idea that different languages are about different engagements in the world, and that Europe was one linguistic space, with differences but connections, and one cultural space,” Mr. MacGregor said.

At 15, Mr. MacGregor was sent by his parents to school in Hamburg for three months. “I was terrifically conscious that this was a city the R.A.F. had totally destroyed and the British had occupied,” he said, referring to the Royal Air Force. “I was expecting silent hostility, but quite the reverse.” There was admiration for the British and the decency of their occupation, he said, “and this was beginning of the puzzle of how the Germans live with their history.”

He studied German at Oxford but did his academic work on France, on Diderot and especially religious painting. Yet he became a lawyer and even practiced for a few years, before deciding, at 27, to chuck it all and study art history. Wasn’t that daring? “Well, I don’t think it’s brave at 27, if you have no commitments or dependents, to do what you want,” he said, laughing.

His mentor was Anthony Blunt, the great art historian identified only in 1979 as a Soviet spy. But Mr. MacGregor called Mr. Blunt “a great and generous teacher, with that extraordinary gift of making you feel you were saying something new and interesting,” a gift Mr. MacGregor, too, has learned to offer.

In 1987, having edited The Burlington Magazine, an art journal, Mr. MacGregor was appointed director of the National Gallery, and for 15 years learned how to shape and manage a great British institution. It was there, with the paucity of the German collection after 1870, he realized “how distorted, because so fragmentary, the understanding of Germany and German culture had become.” German aggression had led to a cultural break, and a language and culture once widespread in Britain — the royal family are Germans, after all — had been mostly lost.

“It’s the most asymmetrical relationship we have,” Mr. MacGregor said, “and we as a country were seriously disadvantaged.” Britain and France have many wrong ideas about one another, he continued, “but they have ideas, and an equal amount of real information and myth, but with Germany there’s this inordinate imbalance, where they know a great deal about us and are interested in us and we know very little other than the two wars, 1914-18 and 1933-45.”

The first piece the National Gallery bought after 1945, as an effort to reconnect, was “what they think is a Dürer,” Mr. MacGregor said, laughing. “But it turned out to be ‘school of.’ ”

In 2002, he was made director of the British Museum, then deeply in debt, with a deficit of 5 million pounds, about $7,820,000 at the time. He has remade the place and restored its finances, while making sometimes controversial cultural openings to Iran, Russia and China, as well as to Germany, and defending the retention of the Elgin marbles, the Parthenon sculptures long claimed by Greece and by now a wearying theme.

Asked what still baffles him most about Germany, Mr. MacGregor said it was the ability for a millennium “to internalize the idea of a wide cultural space without political frontiers,” something foreign to the British or French. “People find the common ground in the language, which was deliberately shaped by Luther to speak to ordinary people across this huge area,” rather like Mandarin today.

He thought for a moment and said, “I began in and with the language, and it keeps going back to language.”

And, he said, then there is the unspeakable barbarism of the Nazis, “the huge question about evil on that scale, capturing a society.” But beyond the nature of evil, he said, “almost the more puzzling question, and it really is a universal one, is the terrifying fragility of civilization, all civilizations.”

He added, “And that’s why everybody keeps going back to the question of Germany.”

Mr. MacGregor leaves the by year’s end, and while his loss to Britain is greatly mourned, again, he has chosen a wider view. He will be one of three people to guide the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which will be centered in the newly rebuilt Hohenzollern Stadtschloss that anchors Unter den Linden. Ripped down by the Communists as a symbol of Prussian militarism, it was replaced by an ugly Palace of the Republic. After reunification, the new Germany ripped down that asbestos-filled building, choosing controversially to rebuild the schloss — or at least its facade.

Still, the forum, named for the two famous Humboldt brothers, the philosopher linguist and the naturalist, will unify Germany’s existing collections, gathered not from imperial conquest, Mr. MacGregor said, but from “a Germany of the mind, that sees the world as connected and understandable through intellectual endeavor — the whole notion of weltgeschichte, of weltkultur,” or world history and world culture.

“It’s an intellectual inheritance that was shattered by the Nazis, and the reconstruction of that idea, that cultures are both particular and global, contextual and connected, is an extraordinary thing to try to do,” Mr. MacGregor said.

It seems a fitting culmination of a career that has been founded on finding the universal in the particular — and trying to rebind the world through culture and history. One of the questions he always tried to answer, he said, is, “What does the world look like if you’re somebody else?”

Correction: October 17, 2015

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the BBC radio series that accompanied the “Germany: Memories of a Nation” exhibition. The radio series had the same title; it was not “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” (That is the name of an earlier BBC radio series that Neil MacGregor worked on.)



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