As Iraq's Treasures Were Looted, the British Museum's Director Furiously Phoned No 10, Demanding Tanks to Guard the Buildings. (Interview: Neil Macgregor)

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), May 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

As Iraq's Treasures Were Looted, the British Museum's Director Furiously Phoned No 10, Demanding Tanks to Guard the Buildings. (Interview: Neil Macgregor)


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


Neil MacGregor likes flying, which is just as well. In the month following the sacking of Iraq's cultural treasures, the director of the British Museum seems rarely to have been off a plane. Just in from Los Angeles, he is evangelistic about air travel. "You can read and write as much as you like, sleep well and wake up for a cup of tea. I'm talking about economy," he adds hastily, lest I suspect him of being a club class sybarite.

Anyone mistaking the sardine life of a cut-price globe-trotter for a nice rest mustwork, as MacGregor does, at a punishing pace. As for cheap fares, a British Museum plagued by deficit and job cuts has long been at the bucket shop end of government handouts. This is the museum's 250th year, and MacGregor, in post for eight months, had expected to mark the anniversary in a worthy but frugal fashion.

Instead, the heritage of Iraq was looted, and he moved at a velocity that military strategists might envy. As Baghdad's treasures were ravaged, MacGregor flew back from Iran and phoned Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, for a government imprimatur on his plan to assemble an emergency team of scholars and conservators. Four days later, he was on the phone to No 10, furious that there were still no tanks to guard the buildings.

US troops arrived shortly afterwards, and so did Unesco's approval for the British Museum to lead an international task force including the Louvre, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan in New York and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. MacGregor's can-rattling has already helped raise "several hundred thousand pounds".

Such dynamism contrasts oddly with government lethargy. MacGregor says that his keeper of the Ancient Near East collection, John Curtis, along with another London-based Iraqi expert, wrote to the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to warn him of the likely devastation in Baghdad. What was the response? "Er, nothing in particular," MacGregor says. So the pre-war advice was ignored? "I'm not sure that's the language one can use. I think what one can say is that it clearly didn't determine action."

Does he yet know the scope of the damage? "All the small objects had been moved by the [Baghdad] museum to the Central Bank. We don't know yet what was taken from its vaults. Several dozen really major pieces have been stolen, and more than several dozen, mostly sculptures, have been smashed on site. And then the reserves have been ransacked. They do not know yet how badly, but the fact that several hundreds [of objects] have been returned suggests that many, many thousands have been pillaged. We have to anticipate very large losses."

Initially, MacGregor called the rout a "catastrophe". If anything, it looks worse now. "The loss and smashing of the iconic objects are catastrophic, but the reserves are really where scholarship and building the big story happen. Then there's the burning of the archives and the library. It looks as though all the records of the Ottoman period and centuries of Ottoman administration have been destroyed."

At the start of our interview, MacGregor dutifully hopes to concentrate on the museum's anniversary, but Iraq preoccupies him. "This is much more important," he says. "It is more urgent and the stakes are higher. Reminding everybody what the British Museum is for is very important, but the survival of the great museums of Mesopotamia is of a different order of importance."

This pivotal status seems to have eluded Gordon Brown. The price of wooing MacGregor from the National Gallery to an institution whose financial woes and staff unrest evoked the British Leyland of the 1970s was reported to be a one-off grant of up to [pounds sterling]15m to bail out the museum and discharge its [pounds sterling]6m debt. The money was never forthcoming.

Even so, MacGregor's linkage of two major institutions twinned by disaster must have rather confounded those who wondered why the fusty British Museum boasted no crowd-pullers such as "Matisse Picasso" or "Aztecs".

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