For a figure as well-connected as Neil MacGregor, the notion of being out-of-the-know seems improbable.
© Simon Rawles
The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, used his speech at the announcement of this year’s Art Fund Prize to report on a chance encounter with MacGregor just moments beforehand, in the depths of Tate Britain, when the British Museum Director had still been none the wiser about his institution’s imminent victory.
Even spoilers on Twitter, where some had learnt the verdict via Radio 4 while the actual prize-giving over-ran, hadn’t got through.
“We had absolutely no idea we’d won,” he insists, looking back on A History of the World in 100 Objects, the museum’s compelling campaign which united venues across the land for a definitive radio series and events programme.
“We assumed that they would naturally give it to a smaller museum that had really struggled to do something great, like the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum [in Alloway] or the Polar Museum [at the University of Cambridge].
“But I can see that what it was about really was the nation – what the series demonstrated, I think, was that across the whole country we have a set of objects in our public collections which are unconquerable across the world, if we know how to exploit and show them. And this project did galvanise them.”
In the end, it was an all-encompassing ethos which swayed the judges. “We have a national collection, and that’s what came over tonight,” says Stephen Bird, of fellow finalists the Roman Baths Museum.
“Their whole project took a step forward for museums and collections, and made other parts of the country feel that they could be involved.
“As Neil was saying, it’s part of a national collection – our collections aren’t locked away in little boxes. I think we were all riveted to our radios for A History of the World in 100 Objects.”
Of all the plaudits MacGregor has received since his appointment in 2002 – the most high-profile of which was probably the unsolicited title of Briton of the Year from The Times in 2008 – the most regular praise comes for giving one of the most famous collections in the world a wider appreciation of the power it holds as a force for good. The prize, too, highlights this potential within the sector as a whole.
“It really showcases art galleries and museums at their best,” says Bird, reflecting on a shortlist run-up which drew new audiences to the Baths.
“One visitor said ‘I never thought this would change my life’, and I think, actually, that’s what museums are here to do. We can touch people’s lives through the creative genius of art collections, the achievements of past and present societies and individuals.
“Collections can inspire people, they can humble people – at their best they send people out perhaps slightly changed and different, as better members of society.”
More than 500 museums took part in A History of the World in 100 Objects. “What’s interesting was the link between the BBC radio regions and the museums and galleries across the country – we saw it very much as a long-term thing, and it can and will continue,” emphasises MacGregor.
“The whole point is the links we’ve built up through this project, so the museum can be seen outside of London. It’s a really important legacy.”
True to its cause, the museum plans to spend the £100,000 proceeds of its win on sending more items on more journeys. This is one legacy which will only shine more brightly.
- The judges’ verdict: What the jury said about the final four...
The British Museum, for A History of the World in 100 Objects: “This project, which showed a truly pioneering use of digital media, has led the way for museums to interact with their audiences in new and different ways.”
The Polar Museum, University of Cambridge, for Promoting Britain's Polar Heritage: “Visitors are taken from the scientific to the emotional in a simple and stunning manner that reflects the care and devotion of the small team.”
The new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Scotland: “An intensely atmospheric experience together with sensitive and engaging handling of a literary archive...the careful choice of display materials brings a very personal, human and contemporary perspective while also asserting Burns as a major literary figure.”
The Roman Baths Museum, Bath, for Roman Baths Development: “...very sophisticated use of space, glass and light throughout the site, highlighting striking and unexpected views...the variety of interpretation and the use of technology, particularly the audio guides and digital reconstructions, brings Roman culture to life.”
- The judges of the new £10,000 Clore Award for Museum Learning decided to double the prize money and share the award between two winners - the South London Gallery and a consortium of the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.