Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum since 2002, is the man credited with not only transforming public opinion of the institution, but also the view of the politicians. Though not an artist, MacGregor describes himself as an ardent admirer of art.
Instrumental in bringing the British Museum’s first exhibition of Arabic calligraphy to the Middle East, MacGregor says Dubai is the perfect choice for this inaugural exhibition because it is a thriving centre for contemporary art. The exhibition, titled Word Into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, at Dubai International Financial Centre, is one of the biggest held in the region and showcases traditional art and the trend of using script to create modern art forms. Emirates Business caught up with him to find out more about the growing interest in Middle Eastern art and other new trends.
How popular is Middle Eastern art globally and is there a growing interest in artworks from the region?
I think there is an enormous and growing interest in works produced across the region, and it was one of the great discoveries of the exhibition held in London in May 2006. More than 70,000 turned up to see the works at the exhibition with great curiosity. What is interesting about these pieces is they have an old tradition and yet are essentially modern. In that sense they are different from modern art in England or Europe.
How much of an interest is there for Middle Eastern art in the international market?
We would not know as the British Museum’s collection is not for sale. Our collection is for people to witness what is going on in the Middle East and understand its culture and art.
Are current world conflicts, perceived to be widening the gap between East and West, influencing the way artworks from the Middle East are appreciated?
Many of the great artists who are working in the tradition of Middle Eastern calligraphy live in London or Paris. So this is also contemporary British art because it is clear in this exhibition that it no longer makes sense to think in terms of geographical divisions. Just as there are 100,000 British people living in the UAE, there is a very large Middle Eastern population in London. So it is important that the ideas of division between Middle Eastern art or British or European art no longer hold any real significance.
What is the role played by museums in the modern world?
Art influences the way you understand other cultures by generating interest, and museums play a key role in showcasing those cultures. If you want to understand how a person thinks, one of the best ways is to see what he creates. That is why museums are important because they promote cross-cultural interaction. This exhibition intends to promote the same understanding. For example, we have works of Islamic calligraphy by a Chinese artist in China and Arabic calligraphy by a Jordanian artist in London.
How big is the collection of Middle Eastern art at the British Museum?
Since the establishment of the museum in 1763, we have been collecting cultural pieces from the Middle East for people to see and understand, and we have always collected contemporary works. We have a collection spanning 5,000 years of Middle Eastern culture. We do not estimate the value because we do not sell them.
How would you evaluate the transition of Middle Eastern art over the years and how far have political and religious conflicts impacted it?
If you look at the collection in the exhibition many of the works are about exile and conflict. There is work about the burning of libraries in Baghdad; there is work depicting problems of Palestinians and about the absence of peace. These are interesting as well as beautiful.
Director of the British Museum
Art bridges the cultural gap