Abu Dhabi to capitalise on Neil MacGregor's magic

The director of the British Museum has teamed up with the TDIC to develop a plan for the Zayed National Museum on Saadiyat Island.

ABU DHABI // When Neil MacGregor took over as the director of the British Museum, he inherited a £5 million (Dh29m) debt and a cultural institution with a third of its galleries closed.

Eight years later, the art historian has restored the museum to its status as a cultural gem and major tourist attraction that draws more than five million visitors a year.

"When he took over, it was in the firing line, seen as old-fashioned, isolationist, clearly lined up for more cuts," said Lord Redesdale, the secretary of the parliamentary archaeology group, in a 2007 Guardian article about Mr MacGregor.

"By treading a very clever political line, he has completely turned that around, so it is now a highly favoured institution."

Now, Abu Dhabi is looking to capitalise on that MacGregor magic. The Scotsman, 64, has teamed up with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) to develop a plan for the Zayed National Museum on Saadiyat Island. The British Museum will act as a consulting partner and have a hand in advising on everything from design and construction to education and curatorial programming.

"We warmly welcome this opportunity to work with TDIC on a project of profound significance to the people of Abu Dhabi and the UAE, and of extraordinary interest to the international community," Mr MacGregor said in 2009, when the partnership was first announced.

Under his leadership, the British Museum has made it a priority to develop regional and international partnerships. This is not the first time he has aided a collaboration with the UAE. In 2008, the British Museum put on its first exhibition in the Middle East, the Word Into Art calligraphy exhibit in Dubai.

Mr MacGregor is also the chairman of the World Collections Programme, a UK initiative to establish partnerships between six major UK cultural institutions and organisations in the Middle East, India, China and Africa. The Middle East is of particular interest to him.

"As a result of what's happened in the Middle East and Africa, the need to engage with the historical dimensions of identities, societies and conflicts is greater than ever," he said last year in The Sunday Times. "The stakes have got higher and higher."

Mr MacGregor is credited with building strong ties with both Iraq and Iran, and he has repeatedly emphasised the importance of making collections that can be universally understood and multi-dimensional.

"The British Museum has gained hugely through the reciprocal relationships it has formalised in recent years with cultural organisations and governments worldwide," he said last year. "We look forward to forging productive new friendships and gaining new perspectives on our own collection, through this partnership with TDIC." The British Museum will primarily work on training and museum preparations for the Zayed National Museum.

Born in Glasgow, Mr MacGregor fell in love with art as a child. He studied French and German at Oxford University, philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, and law at University of Edinburgh, but art was his passion. In 1987, he was named the director of the National Gallery, a controversial decision because he had never worked in a museum. In 2002, "Saint Neil", as he is nicknamed, took on the challenge of overhauling the ailing British Museum.

Earlier this month, he was appointed to the Order of Merit, a UK mark of honour recognising exceptional distinction in the arts, learning, sciences and other areas such as public service.