Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saatchi, Slow-Tech and the Reticence of Neil MacGregor

In The Sunday Times I write about the exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern art at the Saatchi Gallery, I review Andrew Price's book Slow-Tech and I talk to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. At the end of the MacGregor piece I mention his reticence, the way he has managed to remain 'hidden in plain view'. This was inspired by something Neil said as I turned off my recorders - 'You're so maddeningly reticent on these occasions!' After a moment, I realised he meant I didn't comment on what he was saying as he said it. This may be a weakness in my technique as, in the course of interviews, I tend to immerse myself in the world view of the interviewee and only afterwards do I start to judge it. Later I realised Neil's remark was a serious case of the pot calling the kettle black. He is more reticent than anybody else I know, politically and personally. Next to him, Rowan Atkinson is an open book. In fact, I admire this; there is too little reticence in the contemporary world. So perhaps what I meant was it was a nasty case of the pot calling the kettle white.


  1. Andrew Price is dead right environmentally. But what about the men and women who make and sell everlasting machines? As soon as they do, they're redundant. It seems to me that environmental answers are easy, it's the socio-economic ones we need.

  2. Its the Babylon exhibition at the BM any good?

    They apparently have go some original money in stone tablets, which is a real practical way of stopping an asset bubble.

    Mind you, you would need plenty of slaves to carry your wod around with you on your derivative trading days

  3. Thanks for your profile of Neil MacGregor and the British Museum. There’s a religious dimension to his mission that might be of interest too.

    Take the dome of the Reading Room in the Great Court as an indicator as to the purpose of the place. Domes originally signified a space within which people encountered something bigger than themselves and were changed – as in the domes of churches. Hans Sloane wanted the same thing to happen when enlightened people encountered the world in its glorious artifacts. They would glimpse something of themselves in that which was beyond themselves and never see themselves or the world in the same way again.

    MacGregor is picking up on this in blurring the boundaries between culture and religion too. For example, the Hindu festival of the Goddess Durga has been celebrated in the museum, bringing together thousands of London Bengalis and others who were interested in the spectacle. Alternatively, the fact that the BM has a strictly free entry policy, and so many of the nation’s cathedrals do not, says much about being of service to citizens.

    MacGregor is I think well aware that Sloane would have approved, the latter’s mission being 'the confutation of atheism and its consequences', namely engaging with world on the basis that if you are going to live and trade with others you must understand them. It’s an Enlightenment vision, though one rather different from those that often do the rounds.

  4. The article on the Saatchi expo was another temptation to go to Iran, particuarly the mountains north of Tehran. But would going to Iran, I wonder, be the equivalent of writing a travel article on the joys of Bavaria in, say, 1938. Hmmn. A dilemma. Andrew Price sounds a bit of an old sea dog. Good. One can understand them. Sounds as if slow is the new fast, rather as, in this cash-strapped time of talking everything down, depression is the new black.

  5. No Mark it would not be the same, but I am not Sure I would go but not at the moment with a possible Israeli air strike in the offing.
    They also have a pseudo election I think in June which could turn nasty.

    I went in 95 on my bike, down to Italy ferry to Izmir, across the worst part of the journey the Kurdish region on the Iraq boarder (just throw packets of fags at the locals and all will be well) across into Iran and on to Tabriz to stay with friends, then on a Iranian odyssey all the way down to Shiraz and Persepolis (where I meet an American couple!), its an absolutely mesmerizing place with wonderful people and great wine (if you know where to look) back to Tabriz via Tehran where I saw the The Iranian Imperial Crown Jewels.

    Iran is not the place you expect it to be, the people are very westernised in the cities and very welcoming in the rural areas. I found no trace of anti-western sentiment at all, I also meet a couple of clerics who were at pains to tell me their disgust at the fundamentalists.

    Did not take the wife, but I did meet a few western women students on an adventure who did not find it too bad.

  6. Wow, pb, that sounds an amazing trip and on a bike! I'm jealous. Your description of what the people are like is very much my impression too from meeting some exiles over here. Thanks for replying.

  7. There is no doubt if Iran was a normal country it would be one of the most visited nations on earth.
    Its an absolute jewel.

    Another thing about the Iranians is that they are very literate, esp a Sufi Poet called Rumi who they recite as well as they do their favourite passages from the Koran, and endlessly debate his works.

    I go back one day I hope