Neil MacGregor and Simon Schama outside the British Museum
Neil MacGregor and Simon Schama outside the British Museum © Howard Sooley

“Suppose,” I say to the director of the British Museum, as we sit in his office, “I want to write the history of Neil MacGregor in three objects. What would they be?” “Golly!” he says, “one never thinks of oneself in those terms.” The animated voice, at once posh and populist, tails off in amused reflection but only for a moment. Then, like the sport he is, he plays the game. “Yoghurt,” he says, decisively, “a pot of Danone yoghurt.”

And then the story of Neil MacGregor: where he came from, what he became, the marvels he makes for British culture, begins.

“My parents” – both Glasgow doctors – “were of that generation completely marked by the war.” For many Britons, that meant a recoil from Europe – but not for MacGregor’s father and mother: “They were absolutely determined I should be brought up as a European.” And thus, at 10, began the Glasgow boy’s Wanderjahre – the making of the roving, endlessly curious, marvellously cosmo­politan mind Britain is lucky enough to have had presiding, successively, over two of its greatest cultural institutions: the National Gallery and the British Museum.

“I was sent to France, on my own,” to a family in Paris and Arcachon, that lovely Atlantic seaside town south of Bordeaux. There, young Neil had his epiphany with Danone yoghurt and life was never the same. “There was no such thing as yoghurt in Glasgow in the 1950s . . . salt in the porridge, yes, but not yoghurt, much less ‘yow-uhrt’ as I learnt to pronounce it.” A dreamy, happy look comes into his eyes as he intones, as if about to burst into song, “Yaourt, dessert agréable et sain.” “That was the first French phrase I learnt! I wandered happily around Paris by myself, then, back in Glasgow in 1957, I said – hopelessly pretentious as I was and wanting to be somebody else – ‘I just can’t go on without yoghurt.’ My parents took a dim view of this but realised it was their fault for having introduced me to sophistication. There was only one place I could get yoghurt and that was the Jewish delicatessen, so off I went, armed with my pocket money, and that was my first encounter with European Jews.”

There in the Glasgow deli, buying yoghurt from the white-aproned Jewish refugee, inhaling the aroma of sausage entirely unrelated to bangers, the boy MacGregor became, heart and soul, a cosmopolitan. That the shopkeepers spoke German was itself unexpectedly thrilling. “In general, in the social hierarchy of Scotland, you didn’t expect shopkeepers to be polyglot.”

The Glasgow deli – simultaneously Jewish and German, and this just 12 years after the great extermination – was the threshold of a life that would be devoted to the exploration of cultural paradox; to what MacGregor calls “the complication of history”. His own history has not been uncomplicated.

After reading French and German at Oxford, he was set to write a thesis at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. The subject was Denis Diderot, the sceptical philosopher and playwright whose omnivorous, encyclopedic intellect and droll temper would have been a perfect match for MacGregor. Instead, he was summoned back by his father to solid professionalism in Scotland: a law degree and then, for some years, practice. It was while he was a lowly apprentice in one of the grandest Glasgow law firms that he remembers one of his young colleagues being told, as a Catholic, that while he was welcomed as an apprentice, he must never dream of making it to a partnership. (He did.)

Perhaps it was this sudden revelation of stifling narrowness that sent MacGregor, at the comparatively late age of 27, back to his true calling. While a student of art history at The Courtauld, he received the benediction of Anthony Blunt. From editing The Burlington Magazine he became, at 41, the director of the National Gallery. Over 15 years he wrought a mighty transformation, turning a slightly forbidding cathedral of art into the people’s treasure house without the slightest compromise of aesthetic or scholarly standards. He could work this wonder, as he did again at the British Museum, because in a markedly unBritish way, Neil MacGregor is unafraid to care, and care intensely. And what he cares about most is the museum as more than a lodging house of masterpieces. For MacGregor, the purpose has always been historical and anthropological, to make a place where people rethink their place in the world and rediscover, richly, just what it means to be a human.

MacGregor is about to embark on what may be his most challenging exercise yet in cultural education: a 30-part series of weekday programmes for BBC Radio 4, coupled with an exhibition at the British Museum, modelled on the phenomenally successful “History of the World in 100 Objects”. But instead of a Minoan bull-leaper or a Hawaiian feather helmet, this show will feature an Iron Cross, a Gutenberg Bible, the great Tischbein portrait of Goethe, the inscription from the gates of Buchenwald concentration camp and a wetsuit in which fugitives from the Stasi hoped to make it to freedom across the Baltic in a dinghy. For MacGregor’s subject is Germany – from nebulous, scattered, medieval beginnings, via passages of cultural glory and unparalleled brutality, all the way to the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the latest iteration of the protean, endlessly mutating thing that is Germany arriving at the status of the senior power in Europe.

MacGregor senses the project may be a hard sell. He says, a mite defensively – as if anticipating the tabloid headlines “Germans Occupy Bloomsbury, Don’t Mention the War” – “I’ve really no idea whether people are going to be interested. The British, on the whole, don’t travel to Germany and don’t read German literature.” But then he says he also wondered, at the time it was being planned, whether the great Shah ’Abbas Iranian exhibition of 2009 would appeal to the public. “The culture was unfamiliar and there was such a legacy of hostility.” Come, they did, however.

It is just because the public’s general knowledge of German history, such as it is, is so dominated by one immense and hideous narrative – that of the Third Reich and the Holocaust – that MacGregor wants to open minds to something broader and more complex. Those horrors he calls – provocatively – “extraordinary historical anomalies”. What he wants to present to the listener and the visitor to the exhibition is, rather, a strikingly under-determined national identity – one not, from the beginning, driving inexorably on the Autobahn to annihilation. This Germany was more often than not uncertain about what it was, where its borders, especially east and west, lay; a Germany hostile rather than hospitable to centralising power. MacGregor believes this characteristic serves Germany well in its understanding of what a federal Europe needs; when to step in and when to step back. The first section of the exhibition will, he hopes, undermine the stereotypes right away by presenting objects that speak to what he calls “the floating frontier”. The series begins in Königsberg where, right now, “there is not a single ethnic German”, and the show will include a handcart of the kind pushed by millions of women (for the men were gone) expelled from the eastern lands in 1945 and 1946. Nearly 14 million had to be somehow housed: “It was as though the entire population of Canada or Australia arrived all at once in Britain.”

Queen Elizabeth II presents the Order of Merit to Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum at Buckingham Palace in London March 2011
Receiving the Order of Merit, March 2011 © PA

His own journey to this particular cultural destination also began in the yoghurt-and-sausage years. Hamburg in the early 1960s was the next place in the making of the historically engaged mind-expander. MacGregor was 16, on a school exchange and, like all of us in that generation, most of the Germans he had encountered were the caricatures of war movies, kitted out in SS caps, screaming “Halt!” from watchtowers. In Scotland, his parents had friends who had been prisoners of war who felt that their incarceration was, on the whole, “an honourable recollection”. But it was otherwise in France, where the bitterness and fury were implacable and intense. “There were people one met whose whole family had been deported; there I learnt what it meant to be occupied.”

Given those preoccupations, the depth of the unhealed wounds, Hamburg was astounding in its silence. “I expected them to talk about their Blitz. The city was almost completely rebuilt – there were still people living in the big old house where I stayed, who had been there since the years when people had to take in the emigrants, but they lived a separate existence on the top floor . . . But at school no one spoke about the war; nicht sprechen. It’s not as if I expected the children to ask, ‘And what did you do in the war Papa?’” – he laughs one of his endearingly self-mocking chuckles – but, “on the borderline between cowardice and courtesy”, he stayed silent for a while too.

Then one day, he realised that the German boys of his own age had no idea that the war had begun when the Reich invaded Poland. “When I did talk to them, they said it had been because Poland attacked Germany!” (More laughter.) No modern history was taught in the German schools. “This didn’t surprise me, because we didn’t do the 20th century in our schools either, so I mentioned it to the teacher and we had a remedial class on it.” MacGregor is at pains to say that this was not a one-boy educational reform project (though the rest of us might say it presaged it): “I was just puzzled.”

The puzzlement deepened in 1969 when, with Rudi Dutschke and the student revolts turning the world upside down, MacGregor understood that this was a generation which had had virtually no access to the history of its calamity and the atrocities it had inflicted on others. And he speaks of their struggles to remake their own history, grounded in truth, as an extraordinary exercise in engagement. I, too, remember Berlin in 1965, when the choices were, on one side of the wall, the oblivion of shopping on the Ku’damm thanks to Chancellor Erhard’s Wirtschaftswunder and, on the other, the fairytales told about valiant communist resistance to the Third Reich and the canonisation of its prewar leader Ernst Thälmann. But among the young, something hungry for truth was seditiously stirring. In Vienna, on the other hand, denial danced in three-four time to a Lehár waltz.

Not so in beleaguered Berlin. There, history, torn from the bed of forgetfulness, was made to be painful, conflicted and guilt-ridden, yet critically important for the possibility of a future life. “There could be no redemption,” MacGregor says. “How could there be?”

But in Germany, history determined how you lived. Arguably it still does. This, he believes, is sharply different from the way in which history is routinely consumed in Britain. This may be about to change as our own country goes through its own painful shape-shift but, mostly, he says, it’s about “good things done in the past”. “It’s in our architecture, our churches . . . a kind of solace,” sometimes on the verge of sentimental self-celebration. German memory, on the other hand, is dangerously, inescapably explosive. From one side of the Siegestor in Munich, the victory arch built in the 1820s, “it looks exactly like Hyde Park Corner, but on the other side it’s completely blown away”. In the very centre of Berlin, in the heart of the capital is, “a monument to ineradicable shame, the Holocaust memorial. I can’t think of any other monument like it in history, a monument to their own shame. Where in Paris is a monument to French imperialism; where in Britain a monument to our own wrongdoings?” There are, I remind him, museums of slavery and empire. “Yes but not in Whitehall,” he says.

Is he worried that his enthusiasm might tip over into vulgar boosterism for the latest edition of democratic Germany; that it will be all Goethe and no Goebbels? “Yes I was – and am.” But it would be hard to accuse MacGregor of running away from the pain and horror, any more than he feels modern Germany itself has done.

There is a huge, hideous anti-semitic poster advertising the “Der Ewige Jude” (The Eternal Jew) exhibition of 1937; and that gate inscription from Buchenwald, “Jedem das Seine” (To each his own). MacGregor’s subtle unpacking of the multiple, hideous ironies of that display is itself worth the price of admission and characteristic of his method. First, an evocation of its setting – the camp just outside Weimar, home both to Goethe and the great burgeoning of free modernism in the 1920s. Then, the physical thing itself, letters of iron assiduously repainted every year by the Nazi regime, so that inmates would have to read it every day from inside the camp parade ground. Then the swerve into unintended resistance: the lettering made in a Bauhaus font by one of its designers, implying the torturers, too, would get their just deserts. And then a succession of twists: the author of that little act of subversion, Franz Ehrlich, released in 1939, goes on to have a flourishing career under the Nazis, and in 1948 Buchenwald is recycled as a communist gulag, where a quarter of the inmates perish.

There is a point in the exhibition, he says, from which, in one direction, the visitor will be looking at the beautiful portrait of Goethe by Tischbein – with the great man, a slouch hat on his head, recumbent in the warm light of an Italian landscape, the epitome of humanely learned Germany – while the other direction takes the eye to that Buchenwald inscription. In the Buchenwald essay MacGregor himself raises the awful, essential question of how one kind of Germany turned into the other. But he doesn’t offer an answer: “I don’t understand it myself,” is all he says.

His humility is moving but, all the same, there are ways to try. The Holocaust was made possible precisely because earlier figures who had shaped German culture had dehumanised the Jews and made them objects of murderous hatred. MacGregor wants to present Luther as the father of the German language, and so he was. But what he also fathered, all the more potently for that status, was an obsessive anti-semitism which described the Jews as “full of devil’s feces which they wallow in like swine”. “If they could they would kill us all,” he raved, proposing in On the Jews and their Lies a programme to burn their synagogues and raze their houses, so as to dispose of the “poisonous envenomed worms” that they were.

Luther’s anti-semitism is not in this show. But its illuminations are no less deep for being less relentlessly grim. The Iron Cross, often taken to be the emblem of Prussian militarism, was, he reminds us, invented in a moment of reformist egalitarianism, following the traumatic defeat and humiliation by Napoleon in 1806. Its consequence was to trigger a period of reform. The Cross was iron, not of a precious metal, because it was the first decoration that could be awarded to all ranks. Sanctioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm III, it became the symbol of a new, comradely patriotism.

The Imperial Crown featured in the exhibition is not the original medieval crown, said to have been worn by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I at his coronation in Rome in 962 and then reused by successive HREs all the way to the liquidation of the empire in that fateful year of 1806. That was the object MacGregor wanted for the show but was “politely” turned down by the Vienna Museum on the understandable grounds that it “doesn’t travel any more”. In an inspired move, MacGregor remembered that Kaiser Wilhelm II’s request had also been declined around 1906, causing the Hohenzollern emperor to make his own version. Showing the replica allows MacGregor to turn the story into a tale of competition for the legacy and memory of Charlemagne, not just between Austrian Habsburgs and Prussian Hohenzollerns but between the Germans and the French.

These are the sort of memory riffs, back and forth across time, which MacGregor loves and at which he is the peerless virtuoso. His eyes shine with a boyish glee when he brings off one of those complications which makes us rethink stereotypes. The damage done by mutual tribalism is very much on my mind as I talk, referendum looming, to the Glaswegian who might one day soon become a foreigner to his own country. I ask him whether Germany is a prism through which we can all think harder about what it means to give our allegiance to a national community. He does not take the bait: “I think it’s very sui generis to Germany.”

All the same, there is no doubt that he does think of the British Museum as a place with a vocation inherited from its founders like Sir Hans Sloane all the way back in the mid-18th century. Even then that mission was comparative anthropology; the liberating notion that by looking at objects from a range of cultures, separated by geography and history, one would come to understand more about the single object at hand. Sloane collected shoes, all of which had in common the universal need to protect feet but which in every other respect were radically different. “One pair of shoes is not interesting; a huge collection of them an illumination.”

The insatiable curiosity to collect and inquire into other cultures, to learn their languages and understand their traditions in their own terms, was largely pre-imperial, which, he says, makes the museum descended from Sloane “perfectly suited to a postcolonial world”. It was and is the museum which resisted the ignorant assumptions of cultural and racial superiority displayed by the proconsuls and generals of the Victorian empire. MacGregor’s dauntless belief in the humanising effect of looking at the work of others, rather than endlessly at our own reflection caught in the mirror of time, could not be more timely as the fires of wounded nationalisms burn down the house of common culture.

I ask him the question on many people’s minds: it is widely rumoured among the chattering classes that he will not stay much longer in this job. He gives no indication of departure any time soon but smiles and says, “I’ve been here a long time – 12 years.” But then we talk a bit about what kind of exhibition within our own history might have the same salutary effect of raising questions, facing hard truths through the eloquence of objects and he says right away, “Ireland.”

I can’t quite tell whether he has just thought of this or whether he has the next great project already under way. All I know, as I step out into Great Russell Street under a kindly drizzle, forgetting that, in the brightness of our voluble conversation, we only got to one of the three objects in the history of MacGregor, is that times being what they are, neither the British Museum, nor whatever is left of the house of Britain itself, can afford to do without Neil MacGregor.

‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ runs from October 16 to January 25 2015 at the British Museum, London WC1B 3DG; The radio programme to accompany it begins on BBC Radio 4 on September 29.

Photographs: Howard Sooley; Städtische Museen Aachen; U.Edelmann/Städel Museum/ARTOTHEK; BBC; Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin; Samml ung Gedenkstätte Buchenwald/Buchenwald Memorial Collection; British Library Board; Universal Pictorial Press and Agency Ltd; Getty

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