What a museum can do

When Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, arrived in Iran some weeks ago to finalise the loan of various priceless artefacts for the museum’s forthcoming exhibition on that country’s fabled emperor Shah Abbas I, he was confronted by a sight that he found “astonishing”: on the table of the office in which the contract signing took place, in full view of the television cameras that had been summoned to record the event, the two flags of Britain and Iran standing side by side.

MacGregor’s surprise was swiftly followed by a warm sense of solidarity, which was to prove short-lived. As the officials made their speeches, he kept hearing a word that he recognised: jang, the Farsi word for “war”. “Oh my God, I thought, they are going to ask me on television what happens if our two countries go to war,” he recounts a few days later in his elegant office in a wing of the museum in central London.

MacGregor’s mind raced and he would surely have been forgiven if his deep-lying belief that the careful scrutiny of the history of objects and the free exchange of ideas could knock politically recalcitrant heads together had finally reached its hubristic day of reckoning.

But, as the translator finished, he could breathe a sigh of relief. He was merely being asked to join his Iranian counterparts in expressing concern to Unesco for the damage done to the Gaza Museum of Archaeology in the preceding days. “I said, ‘Of course,’” MacGregor recalls. The Iranian delegation included a representative from the office of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and I ask if he said very much. “No,” says MacGregor. “He just smiled rather delphically.”

MacGregor has been putting benign expressions on improbable faces since taking over as director of the British Museum in 2002. He has used the post to remind a world audience of the ideals and principles behind the museum’s foundation, and of its role and importance in the modern world.

As expressed on a host of occasions with elegance and humour, his argument can be reduced to a few simple tenets: that objects tell stories; that many of those stories have been distorted over time; and that a museum can act as a philosophical space to scrutinise competing claims and arrive at a more rational understanding of current events.

On the night before our meeting, MacGregor gave a typically wide-ranging lecture to commemorate the museum’s 250th birthday. The museum, he said, was “the private collection of every citizen in the world”; a space where we “could watch other cultures watching us”.

Part of that mutual regard lies in exchanges with other countries. Exchanges of ideas, certainly, but also of things. The civic power of things, objects “that speak of inter-connectedness”: these are MacGregor’s favourite themes and he has gone about bringing those philosophically subtle ideals to physical fruition with an exhibition programme that has rejuvenated the British Museum in spectacular fashion.

In the year 2007-2008, a record 6m visitors came through its doors, including 35,000 on one day alone to celebrate Chinese new year. It was, the 62-year-old MacGregor noted drily, the first time the museum had to shut its main gates in Great Russell Street since the Chartist riots of 1848.

He dislikes the phrase “cultural diplomacy” for the work that he has been doing, fearing it risks compromising the museum’s independence from government, which he holds to be absolute and vital. (What happens when a cultural institution is not considered independent of the government has been strikingly demonstrated by the recent rupture in relations between the British Council and Tehran.) But it is as good a description as any for the part he has played in forming relationships with countries – Iraq, China, Iran – that have presented all manner of political awkwardness to the British government.

The exhibition on Shah Abbas that opens this month is the third in a series on great world empires (coming after the hugely popular show featuring the terracotta army of Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi, and one on Roman emperor Hadrian, and before an exhibition on the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II). MacGregor’s overall concept for the series is to study the “instruments of cohesion” that held those empires together and ask what the consequences of their dominance have been in the long term.

The fifth ruler of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Abbas, who came to the throne in 1587, is a perfect subject for MacGregor’s imperial project. A key figure in the development of modern Iran, a master of trade, patronage and diplomacy who managed to foster good relations with Europe, he was responsible for a golden period in the arts.

It was Abbas who established Isfahan as the new capital of Iran in 1598, commencing a building programme that made the city centre one of the most beautiful architectural corners of the planet. “Isfahan is half the world,” runs an oft-quoted popular rhyme in Iran, and to sit in Imam Square and observe the changing light at dusk on its blue-domed mosques is to bear witness to the shah’s grandiloquent conception.

On one such golden afternoon, I visited the square with MacGregor and, as we stood in the main reception room of Abbas’s Ali Qapu palace, a glorious six-storey building decorated with intricate wooden carving and frescos, he urged close examination of the paintings around the room: one was in the style of the Italian Renaissance, another looked Indian, yet another Chinese.

“All visitors feel they have been acknowledged in the decoration of the space,” MacGregor explains. It is art made metaphor for diplomacy, a theme that cannot help but inspire the museum director who has seemingly limitless belief in the power of things – not just artistic things but all things – to bring people closer together.

A similar artistic eclecticism can be seen in Isfahan’s Armenian cathedral, where Islamic tiling coexists with Flemish-style religious paintings. Christian liturgical objects from the cathedral are among the highlights of the museum’s exhibition. “They speak more clearly than anything can of a tolerance that would have been unthinkable in Europe,” says MacGregor.

Tolerance, then, is the first lesson to be learnt from the reign of Shah Abbas. Real-life empires are not Disney empires; Shah Abbas’s forbearance towards other religions was no dreamy ideal but largely born of economic expediency.

The second supremely important legacy for the modern world is the shah’s conception of the relationship between church and state. The most notable absence from the British Museum exhibition will be that of any images of Abbas himself. “There are no great public images of him, because of Islamic convention, quite unlike the case of Elizabeth I, who is a key parallel,” says MacGregor. “Everybody knew what Elizabeth looked like.” But Abbas had another way of projecting his power: through the gifts he made to the country’s great shrines.

The burial site of Imam Reza in Mashhad, the most sacred place in the country, attracts some 20m visitors a year, 3m arriving on Iranian new year’s day (24 flights from Tehran alone). It was Abbas who established the practice of making extravagant donations from his private wealth to the shrine and thus, by extension, into the public domain.

It was a political masterstroke as well as an act of great devotion by a ruler who once walked 600 miles in pilgrimage to Mashhad from Isfahan. Not only did it raise Abbas’s profile among his public but it established an alliance between state and religion that provided an instant, coherent legal system, and put on show new textiles and materials that fast became objects of desire among the elites of western Europe.

“It was a way of demonstrating, ‘This is the economy, stupid,’” says MacGregor with gleeful anachronism. “It was rather like the Great Exhibition [at Crystal Palace in 1851], a way of showing off all the great things that were being manufactured.”

This interplay between political, religious and economic power was the crux of Abbas’s reign. “The pilgrimage and the gifts to Mashhad are a way of saying, ‘We are our own political centre of gravity,’ ” says MacGregor. “And there are, of course, very interesting analogies with Elizabeth and her relations with Rome. It is all about insisting that you are your own country, you are your own realm, and you are different from those around you.

“In a strange way,” he says with a touch of scholarly mischief, “we are the only other modern state to have such a close formal link between the state structure and the state church.’”

Today there is a second Elizabeth on the throne and Iran has become a much more forbidding place than it was as the lively trading partner of 17th-century Europe.

This is the sub-text that hangs heavy in the mounting of the British Museum show. If MacGregor is right in thinking that the scrutiny of historical artefacts can illuminate the present, how will a visit to Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran take us beyond the dull platitudes uttered by those stoking belligerence between the two countries?

One of MacGregor’s hopes is that the show will lead us to a better knowledge of the complex relationship between church and state in Iran. “Iran is not a theocracy,” he says carefully. “The constitution of Iran gives power that comes from the vote, not power that comes from God. It is secular power working with religion.

“Just to make it easier for people to start thinking about that complexity would be valuable.” He skates over the potential oxymoron as if he hasn’t noticed it. There are worse T-shirt slogans festooning museum shops than “Making complexity easy”.

He also believes we should look more closely at ourselves. “Many people in Britain have forgotten but, between 1820 and 1950, Britain dominated Iranian political life, and a great deal of what has happened in Iranian politics since then has been because of that British intervention. Iranians know it, at the simplest level, but most British people have lost that memory. It is very asymmetrical.”

I ask him how the museum’s previous collaboration with Iran’s museums for a ground-breaking show on ancient Persia four years ago had been perceived. “The Iranians are a very polite, courteous people. You have to take account of that. But what they say is that they feel Iran has been in general poorly represented in the western media and that they felt [in the exhibition] that their civilisation had been treated honourably, and presented to the public as a great civilisation, and they were pleased with that.”

He pauses and measures a cutting slice of understatement: “Most of what is said about Iran at the moment is only partially true and rarely respectful.” I ask how co-operative the Iranian authorities have been this time round, during what has been a fraught time for UK-Iranian relations, and MacGregor says he has been “moved” by their generosity.

MacGregor says he had no idea when he took the job of museum director that his role would evolve in the way that it has. He identifies the Iraq war, and the attendant destruction and looting of treasures from the National Museum in Baghdad, as a turning point.

“That made clear to me how valuable a collection of things is, in trying to understand the Middle East. More and more of the politics of the Middle East are couched in terms that are explicable only if you understand its long history, and how different participants read that long history.

“I hadn’t understood that before. That to have a chance of understanding how they see the issue, you have to go through that long history. And a lot of the evidence is right here.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.