Jack Wakefield

Who will be the next head of the British Museum? Here are the runners and riders

The hunt for the next head of the British Museum is not going to be easy. The director needs to have the confidence of his trustees, to inspire his curators and to convince the government to maintain the grant. In all of those areas MacGregor has been exceptional.

The Standard reports that the internal candidate Joanna Mackle, deputy director, is unlikely to put her name forward. So who’s name is in the ring?

One of the most prestigious jobs in the museum world, it suffers a handicap when it comes to salary. As such it is extremely unlikely that the most obvious candidate Thomas Campbell, currently director of the Metropolitan Museum (salary over $1m) could be persuaded to apply for Neil MacGregor’s job (salary under £200,000). That’s a shame because Campbell combines the experience of leading a great institution with first rate curatorial ability and a keen desire to connect with his audience without compromising on quality.

Luke Syson, curator of Renaissance art at the Met, is known to have been interviewed for the National Gallery job. Having worked in coins and medals at the British Museum it’s an institution he knows but it would be a world turned upside down if, having been turned down for the junior job at the NG, he was found to be just what the more demanding BM needed.

The director of the Fitzwilliam is the excellent Tim Knox, but he has only been in place since 2013 and while he is popular and imaginative (his attempt to create a group of regional UK institutions to buy the Bedford Poussin stands out as a model of imaginative energy) this is probably not the right time for him. Still, he would be the candidate that appeals to me the most.

With the departure of Penelope Curtis from Tate Britain, following adverse press including in this magazine, London’s top museum directors are all men. One possibility might be Courtauld director, Deborah Swallow who was head of the Indian department at the V&A. Only two years younger than Neil MacGregor her age, and her happiness at the Courtauld, is against her but with her depth of Indian knowledge she might enjoy a brilliant swansong there.

The awesome exhibition of ancient Greek art, Defining Beauty, currently at the BM was duffed up by Professor Edith Hall, head of the Centre for Hellenic Studies, for being too 18th century and presenting an insufficiently nuanced view of women and slaves. Like MacGregor, Professor Hall has a cosy relationship with Radio Four and if the need was felt to challenge the very fibres of the institution perhaps she could be persuaded to cross the floor from academia.

On the other hand the British Museum presents itself as a world museum and undoubtedly it will cast its net very widely. I am afraid the present writer is poorly equipped to weigh the merits of museum professionals from Perth to Princeton but perhaps a distinguished American curator of classical art, such as Carlos Picon, will have tired of sending the illicit acquisitions of the last 50 years back to Europe and welcome the chance to lead an institution where provenances, if not uncontentious, are at least washed by time.