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MacGregor goes to Berlin

Kate Müser, Conny PaulApril 9, 2015

Cosmopolitan Berlin? Its international airport has failed to take off and it lost a half-hearted Olympic bid to Hamburg. Now Berlin is banking on museum director Neil MacGregor to boost its global cultural relevance.

Neil MacGregor, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

Neil MacGregor is coming to a construction site: Berlin's City Palace is covered in scaffolding and surrounded by cranes. The royal residence from the mid-15th century was badly damaged during World War II and then demolished by the East German communist regime. Now the City Palace is in the midst of a 590-million-euro ($640 million) reconstruction project, set to be completed in 2019.

MacGregor, who announced Wednesday (08.04.2015) that he was stepping down after 13 years as director of the prestigious British Museum, is much more concerned with the "construction" project within the Palace, which is to house a number of Berlin's museum collections and become a center of intercultural exchange.

Starting in October, the 68-year-old museum director, working closely with Germany's Minister of Culture Monika Grütters, is to head the Humboldt-Forum, tasked with shaping the cultural institution housed in the Palace. "With the Humboldt-Forum, we want to create a place where the world's new stories are told, connections are found and common issues are discussed," said Grütters.

"The Humboldt-Forum is the most significant cultural undertaking on the table in Germany right now," Peter Rauhe, art expert and chairman of the Society for Friends of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, told DW. "An individual was sought who has a global perspective on art." He added that choosing MacGregor was "a stroke of genius" and that the museum director was "born for this role."

At the helm of one of the world's most prestigious cultural institutions, MacGregor has been lauded for rejuvenating the British Museum's stuffy image while maintaining its intellectual standard: Visitor numbers rose from 4.6 million per year to 6.7 million over his term, making it the world's second-most visited museum next to the Louvre.

British Museum in London, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Kalker
MacGregor turned the British Museum into one of the country's most popular tourist attractionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Kalker

The bridge builder

While Britain is mourning the departure of their "Saint Neil" - whom "The Guardian" referred to as "indispensible" and a "national treasure" - Berlin is heralding a new era of relevance on the global cultural scene. Not only does the Scotland native speak fluent German and have long-standing ties to Germany, he has established himself as a builder of cultural bridges. One example has been his approach to international cooperation.

"The British Museum is a museum of the world, for the world and nothing demonstrates this more than the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary," wrote Neil MacGregor for "The Times" in December 2014. The loan came at a low-point in Russian-European relations, with the Ukraine crisis still simmering.

As a promoter of intercultural understanding, MacGregor has a track record of bridging the gap between the cultural establishment and society itself, most notably through his extensive work in media.

Early on, from 1981 to 1987, MacGregor served as editor of Burlington Magazine before heading up the National Gallery in London. His work for British television and radio has often linked themes from his museum work and is a passion he plans to continue to pursue after leaving the British Museum, with a radio series on faith and society. British media has speculated that he may also present the BBC's planned epic "Civilisation" series.

In 2010, he presented the series "A History of the World in 100 Objects" on BBC Radio 4, which was based on items from the British Museum and was turned into a bestselling book. He presented a regular radio feature on the works of Shakespeare in 2012, and in 2014 he broadcast a series entitled "Germany: Memories of a Nation." At the same time, he curated a landmark exhibition of the same title at the British Museum aimed at shaping the way Brits view their German neighbors, which he said they knew very little about.

Journal Interview - Germany Exhibition - A New View of Deutschland?

"We wanted to talk about the Germany that is Europe's newest country, a country that has its own special way of dealing with its history," MacGregor told DW in an October 2014 interview about the exhibition, referring to post-reunification Germany. "That's because what fascinates all of us is that in Germany people look to history to see the future and better understand it."

Window to the world

While Germany regularly reflects on its own past - both the tragedies of the 20th century and the Goethes and Humboldts of past eras - Culture Minister Grütters has set a course in selecting a big-name non-German director for the Humboldt-Forum project: The project is poised to become a heavyweight.

That seems to contradict recent statements by Berlin's acting mayor, Michael Müller, who said he hoped to see a special section in the City Palace dedicated to the city of Berlin. German press has predicted that MacGregor will take anything but a local approach and that Berlin's cosmopolitan, worldly side would stand in the limelight next to artifacts from all over the globe.

Berlin City Palace under construction, Copyright: Doris Spiekermann-Klaas
The Berlin City Palace is being rebuilt according to a design by Italian architect Franco StellaImage: Picture-Alliance/Tagesspiegel/D. Spiekermann-Klaas

In his two-year post, MacGregor will be joined on the Humboldt-Forum board by two major players from Germany's cultural establishment: archaeologist Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, and Berlin art historian Horst Bredekamp. Parzinger is responsible for the internationally oriented Berlin Museums which will largely contribute objects to the Humboldt-Forum, including the Ethnological Museum and Museum for Asian Art.

Leaving the British Museum is a far cry from retirement, as MacGregor will be dividing his time three ways. But all three jobs complement one another in his unique brand of bridge building and intercultural understanding. In addition to his radio projects in the UK, he'll be advising the CSMVS Museum in Mumbai on their new presentation of world cultures.

While MacGregor is set to ensure the focus of the Humboldt-Forum remains squarely centered on the globe, the world is bound to cast their eyes on Berlin, which has reeled in one of the most in-demand museum directors on the market. He even turned down a job offer from the MoMA in 2008.

A museum complex isn't quite as practical as an airport, nor as widely watched as a sports even, but it seems the Humboldt-Forum is poised to put Berlin back on the map of cosmopolitan cities. Even though Neil MacGregor will likely have to wear a hard hat, since the Berlin City Palace doesn't officially open until after his term expires, he's well experienced in "building" projects.