By Tim Cooke

The announcement of the forthcoming departure of Neil MacGregor as Director of the British Museum has probably received more global media coverage and comment than any previous individual move in museum history.

I have been privileged to encounter Neil as a professional colleague across more than a decade as a member of the UK’s National Museum Directors Council. On a more personal level I was delighted to host a visit he made to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as we prepared a major refurbishment scheme and was able to discuss with him some of the trickier elements of presenting the contested history of Ireland.

I was also able to explore many of my challenges in running a group of National Museums in Northern Ireland’s post-conflict era during what for me were memorable one-to-one sessions in his office in Bloomsbury.

All of these encounters were master classes in diplomacy, graciousness, tenacity and the art of deploying of human intelligence in the pursuit of knowledge and meaning.

Throne of Weapons

Throne of Weapons

We also negotiated the loan to Belfast of the British Museum’s Throne of Weapons right at the time the unresolved and critical issue of paramilitary disarmament was at the top of the political agenda in Northern Ireland. The sculpture was made by artist Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) in 2001 from decommissioned weapons used in the Mozambique civil war (1977-1992) which claimed almost one million lives. It offers a powerful reflection on the brutal machinery of war and the transformative effects of peace-building.

Neil’s personal encouragement as we tackled difficult and contested history in our exhibition interpretation and programming in Northern Ireland was reassuring and insightful.

Many have commented on his role at the British Museum itself. For me his leadership in exploring peoples and civilisations often reduced contemporaneously in the Western media to short and alarmist descriptors is a broader service to global understanding and common humanity.

Beyond that, however, he has created a wider and less public personal legacy for those such as I to whom he gave generously of his wisdom and time.