Neil MacGregor, Former British Museum Director, Calls Britain’s Uncritical View of Its Past ‘Dangerous’

He praised Germany’s self-critical approach in contrast.

Neil MacGregor at a press conference prior to the opening of “The British View: German - Memories of a Nation” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin on October 7, 2016. Photo Adam Berry/AFP/Getty Images.
Neil MacGregor at a press conference prior to the opening of “The British View: German - Memories of a Nation” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin on October 7, 2016. Photo Adam Berry/AFP/Getty Images.

Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, has criticized Britain’s view of its history, calling it “dangerous and regrettable,” and focusing only the “sunny side.”

MacGregor made these comments just before the opening of the exhibition “The British View: Germany – Memories of a Nation” this past weekend at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau museum, which explores the history of the country as seen from a British perspective, via over 200 objects and artworks dating to the last 600 years, from Albrecht Dürer to Georg Baselitz.

During the opening remarks, MacGregor, speaking in fluent German according to the Guardian, and praised Germany’s rigorous and self-critical analysis of its own complicated history, including its Nazi past, as opposed to Britain’s lack of critical approach.

“In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” MacGregor said.

“Maybe we mention a little bit of slave trade here and there, a few wars here and there, but the chapters we insist on are the sunny ones,” he explained, before adding: “This sort of handling of history is dangerous as well as regrettable”.

(Left to Right) Barrie Cook, curator of the exhibition; Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin Gropius Bau; Thomas Oberender, director of the Berliner Festspiele; and British art historian Neil MacGregor at a press conference prior to the opening of “The British View: German - Memories of a Nation” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin on October 7, 2016. Photo Adam Berry/AFP/Getty Images.

(Left to Right) Barrie Cook, curator of the exhibition; Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin Gropius Bau; Thomas Oberender, director of the Berliner Festspiele; and British art historian Neil MacGregor at a press conference prior to the opening of “The British View: German – Memories of a Nation” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin on October 7, 2016. Photo Adam Berry/AFP/Getty Images.

MacGregor, who’s currently in the advisory board of Berlin’s Humboldt-Forum, stepped down from his post as director at the British Museum at the end of 2015, after a successful 13-year tenure. He was succeeded by the German art historian Hartwig Fischer.

The director of the Martin Gropius Bau, Gereon Sievernich, thanked MacGregor and the exhibition’s curator, Barrie Cook, for having “given the Britons another view of Germany, and for giving the Germans their Germany back,” the Guardian reports.

“Germany – Memories of a Nation” was first shown at the British Museum from October 2014 to January 2015. At the opening of the Berlin leg, MacGregor said the exhibition had been conceived pre-Brexit, but that the show nevertheless sheds light on some of the key difference between Germany and Britain.

“If you’re looking for reasons for Brexit, just the idea there were no hard and fast borders in Germany explains […] how Europe is shaped today, but makes an island folk like ours panic,” MacGregor stated, according to the Guardian.

MacGregor also said he’d be happy to see an exhibition exploring British history from a German perspective, saying that “[It’d] be helpful for us to have our own history explained to us from an outside perspective.”


Follow artnet News on Facebook:


Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.

Share