“I proposed to my wife here,” says Niall FitzGerald as we settle into a table at his favourite Italian restaurant. “She was sitting just there where you are . . . ”

Well, this is a first. Is there a piece of etiquette to cover it? It seems only right to offer to move to another chair. But FitzGerald laughs it off, certainly not meaning to disconcert me. “I’ve been coming here for 25 years,” he adds. So plenty of other dining companions have occupied the same seat, then. Phew.

Montpeliano, in Knightsbridge, is just as proper Italian restaurants used to be: framed monochrome photos of silver-era movie stars; a terrace with vines; widely spaced tables; a sense of quiet. Regular place, regular table. And when it comes to the food, it’s clear that looking at the menu is a mere formality for him, as both he and the waiter know perfectly well what his choice will be: mozzarella di bufala and tomato salad, followed by risotto primavera. I decide on the same starter and a steamed sea bass. A glass of white wine to accompany the main course. Minimal fuss.

illustration of Niall FitzGerald by James Ferguson
© James Ferguson

This description may give completely the wrong impression of Niall FitzGerald, whose range of interests and activities is anything but circumscribed. Yes, his business career showed a consistency that is becoming unusual these days: he joined Unilever in Ireland as an accountant in 1968 and spent more than 30 years with the multinational, culminating in an eight-year stint as chairman and chief executive. This was followed, in 2004, by three years as chairman of Reuters, then three more as deputy chairman of Thomson Reuters. But the rest would take some time to list.

Anyway, we are here to talk about these other interests – even if business and culture intersect significantly in his life. FitzGerald (I would call him Sir Niall if, as an Irish citizen, he could use the knighthood conferred on him in 2002 in a more than an honorary capacity) stepped down earlier this month from the chairmanship of the trustees of the British Museum after an eight-year term.

So why now? “I’ve done two four-year terms,” he replies, “and I’ve always believed that you should go before you’re bored. And definitely before – God forbid – they get bored with you.” At a youthful 68, and with a fine track record at the museum (where my very senior spy described him as “the best chairman we’ve had”), another four years surely wasn’t out of the question, though?

“And Neil [MacGregor, the British Museum’s director] obviously isn’t going to stay for ever, so it was right that a new chairman should lead the search for his successor.”

Aha. This seems a powerful hint of more change afoot at the museum before long. The incoming chairman, Sir Richard Lambert (once editor of the Financial Times), will have a difficult task on his hands to find a new director as brilliant and popular as MacGregor, whose international reach and wide-ranging special exhibitions are credited with making the museum far more accessible, and deepening the public’s sense of what it could be.

The partnership between the departing chairman and his director has obviously been a very strong one, directing and weathering significant and rapid changes. FitzGerald says MacGregor has made “an indelible mark on the place”; MacGregor, in one of his farewell speeches for his chairman, recently spoke of FitzGerald’s “inspirational” qualities. The eight years of FitzGerald’s chairmanship have seen public institutions in Britain shifting the whole balance of their funding model and, therefore, of their thinking and strategy.

FitzGerald was elevated to the chairmanship in July 2006, just a few months after joining the board of trustees in March, taking over from former diplomat Sir John Boyd. The trustees vote to appoint a chairman from among their number; Lambert, FitzGerald’s successor, is a long-serving board member.

“When I arrived,” FitzGerald tells me, “the museum had to find for itself one pound in every five. Now it’s 60:40. We generate 60, and we get 40 [from government funding].”

He describes his ways of encouraging “a process of thinking differently” about funding. “The very first thing I said when I got there, was, ‘I want us all to assume that in 20 years there won’t be any funding at all – so what do we start doing today that will ensure we’re still here and doing what we’re doing?’ ”

It was a pretty dramatic realignment for a venerable institution, founded in 1753. FitzGerald is realistic – “it’s confronting necessity” – but he also takes a positive view of how good it can be to think creatively about things such as memberships and public outreach. Other areas too – research funding, and other ways of realising the extraordinary intellectual riches contained in such a place, among the trustees as well as the staff – were all investigated. One of the most high-profile projects, director Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, moved from a BBC radio series to become a bestselling book, and helped to catapult the museum’s visitor numbers to a record 6.7m in 2013. Those figures make it the second most visited museum in the world, topped only by the Louvre in Paris.

“One of the things I’m quite proud of leaving behind,” FitzGerald adds, “is a stronger structure [with the appointment of two deputy directors, Joanna Mackle and Jonathan Williams]. Now, if the director leaves, the place will continue.”

We’ve been talking intently about the ins and outs of management and funding, and the ways in which FitzGerald’s business experience intersects with the demands of a modern public institution, for some time before the first course arrives: old-style hearty portions, enough mozzarella to feed a small family. It might sound like a dry subject but his anecdotal style is lively, with a Limerick accent that delivers quick, urgent sentences.

I’ve been eager to discuss the involvement of the British Museum in one of Abu Dhabi’s most prestigious cultural projects, the Zayed National Museum. Like the Louvre and the Guggenheim, the museum’s need to monetise its collections and its intellectual and curatorial assets has led to a lucrative deal with the emirate: effectively renting out its artefacts and expertise. Actual revenue is hard to pin down, as negotiations about loan agreements are ongoing, but FitzGerald is confident the trustees will make a healthy deal. Did the BM think of using its name for the project, as the Louvre and the Guggenheim have?

“No, no, no,” comes the reply. “In my mind, at least, there was no doubt. [If you do that] you’re giving control over your brand to somebody else. I have 35 years’ experience of branding and I know what a valuable brand is worth. And I think that the others [the Louvre and the Guggenheim] are going to regret it. Could be regretting it already, in fact.

“We had very long – very long – and full discussions with all the trustees about it all. And about how to do it in a way that would control all the variables. And” – he pre-empts my question – “the way in which labour is treated. We have focused on that, deep down. Joanna [Mackle] visits regularly, sees the accommodation, everything. And if any part of the agreement about these things is breached, then we can always withdraw. Not having given our brand away, we could withdraw.

“One of our trustees is Egyptian, Ahdaf Soueif, and she visits regularly too. Ahdaf doesn’t take any prisoners – if she doesn’t like what she sees, you’ll know about it. But, so far, everything is OK.”

Once the buildings are finished, the outline agreement is for about 350 long-term loans from the BM, with a small number of “iconic” loans on a shorter timeframe. All sorts of “environmental issues”, FitzGerald stresses, are important considerations, including the safety and preservation of the objects. But there’s a shiny precedent: in 2010 the museum made an initially controversial loan to Tehran of the Cyrus cylinder, one of the most significant cultural objects of the Persian empire. No fewer than 500,000 people queued to see it in the four months it spent in the National Museum of Iran, and, he tells me, despite all sorts of dire predictions about its non-return, on the very day it was due to be returned, there it was.

“And only after that,” he adds a little mischievously, “did it go off to the United States.”

In the middle of all this our main courses have arrived. My fish is lightly cooked and beautifully boned out; the risotto primavera, to my surprise but no one else’s, seems to have carrots in it. The glasses of wine are distinctly generous.

Through Islam, cultural diplomacy, tolerance and lack of it, we slide into talking about Africa – an important place in FitzGerald’s professional life with Unilever and for his cultural and wider interests. “I visited Africa for the first time in 1976,” he says, and launches into a vivid story about a car crash on the road between Nairobi and Mombasa, and being taken to hospital for a blood transfusion – “so Africa is literally in my blood.”

Working in South Africa in the 1980s, he was asked by a union leader with whom he had become friendly if he would be one of the international visitors who were by then regularly talking to Nelson Mandela, in prison, as a sort of preparation for his release. FitzGerald believes South Africa’s then president FW de Klerk deserves more credit for his pragmatic attitude: “He saw the inevitability of what had to happen, and in the end it was him talking to his own tribe, persuading them that they had to deal with it.” During those years, too, FitzGerald, who had been asked to go to South Africa precisely because of his opposition to apartheid, managed to run Unilever’s business “according to our values”, fully integrated with no racial distinctions.

When talking, he jumps quickly from serious to light-hearted mode – the weighty issues of companies’ moral obligations give way to a funny shaggy-dog story about the (non-segregated) “ablution block” in a new factory, complete with a wickedly good imitation of the thick Afrikaans accent of the very thick official sent to remonstrate about the lamentable lack of toilet apartheid.

During Mandela’s presidential years FitzGerald saw little of him, he says, but following the great man’s retirement in 1999 FitzGerald was amazed one day by a phone call, out of the blue, from Mandela asking him to chair his Legacy Trust, which raises funds to promote education and training in Africa. It was a stint that clearly left FitzGerald even more impressed than ever by the statesman’s qualities. He tells a touching anecdote about Mandela’s visit to the FitzGeralds’ home in Sussex; the older man was already very frail but stopped on his way into the house in front of two young men who had been working in the gardens, to compliment them. “Mandela would always do that, always notice the least significant person in the room and single them out and make them feel special. They would grow in front of your eyes.”

Not long ago, Neil MacGregor teasingly talked of FitzGerald’s arrival at the British Museum as bringing “a level of authority to which we were unaccustomed”, referring to the fact that FitzGerald is actually the king of two African tribes – ceremonial honours conferred on him by African leaders with whom he had worked closely. Another hilarious story ensues about his investiture by the Ashanti; again, it is counterbalanced by more sober-sided activities: his commitment to Africa extends to co-chairing the Investment Climate Facility for Africa, a body that aims to make African countries a more acceptable prospect to would-be investors.

“I’m essentially an optimist about Africa,” he declares. “Over the years I’ve seen a lot of improvement, a lot. But it’s always the same question: leadership. To find a leader who is reasonably honest, and who can engage the population at large. And there’s now another growing problem, which is the situation with Islam. That’s serious.”

We say no to puddings but yes to coffee. Much of this wide-ranging past experience, including fierce tussles (which he clearly enjoyed) on behalf of the British Museum with no fewer than six secretaries of state for Culture, Media and Sport, FitzGerald will be leaving behind for the calmer waters of the Leverhulme Trust, where since last year he has chaired the hugely rich benevolent research and educational foundation.

Will he miss the hurly-burly? Not entirely, it seems. It transpires that early in his chairmanship he instituted a system of emeritus trusteeships, essentially to keep the best talent and experience accessible once trustees had left the board. And he is now to be, as he puts it, a beneficiary of the system. “I’ll be sitting on various committees and things,” he explains. “But I won’t get in the way of the new chairman. I’ll be very careful about that.”

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

Illustration by James Ferguson

This article has been amended since publication. Abu Dhabi’s national museum project is named the Zayed National Museum, not the King Faisal National Museum.


This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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