British Museum director Neil MacGregor to retire from full-time role after 13 years

‘Difficult decision’: Neil MacGregor will step down as director of the British Museum in December (Picture: Graham Barclay/Bloomberg News)

British Museum boss Neil MacGregor, one of the outstanding directors of his generation, is to retire from full-time employment at the end of this year, he announced today.

Mr MacGregor, 68, will leave the museum after 13 years in which he has transformed its mission statement, renewed and expanded its galleries, overseen blockbuster shows of rigorous scholarship and made culture a weapon of international diplomacy.

He said it was a “very difficult” decision as the job had been “the greatest privilege of my professional life” but it seemed “a good time to go”.

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, with new galleries currently hosting an exhibition on the body in Greek art as well as research and conservation facilities, is now open and the museum has announced plans for new Islamic galleries and for the Old Reading Room.

“The museum is now ready to embark on a new phase – deploying the collection to present different histories of the world. It is an exhilarating prospect,” he said.

But he made clear he will not be vanishing from public life. “Although I shall no longer be working full-time, I shall be involved in a number of projects,” he said.

These include working with the BBC and the museum on a new Radio 4 series on faith and society and advising the CSMVS Museum in Mumbai. He will also chair an advisory board for the German minister of culture on the new Humboldt-Forum cultural centre in Berlin which some thought he was being courted to run.

The artist Sir Antony Gormley, a museum trustee, said: “ In his 13 years at the helm of the British Museum, Neil has re-inspired and revived the purpose and spirit of the museum as a public, free collection “’of and for the world’.”

Sir Nicholas Hytner, the just-departed National Theatre director, said: “I can’t think of anyone else who is simultaneously one of the world’s leading scholars, cultural leaders, showmen, broadcasters and authors. How lucky we’ve been to have him.”

Sir Richard Lambert, the former CBI director general and museum chairman, said: “Neil MacGregor has been an outstanding director of the British Museum and has made an extraordinary contribution to public life in the UK and beyond.”

They are now starting the process of finding a successor capable of handling the diverse collections and pressures of a post which requires sophisticated negotiating skills, not least over the thorny subject of the Elgin Marbles and in the face of government spending cuts exceeding 30 per cent.

Some would like the 20th director to be its first woman boss although Mr MacGregor’s deputy, Joanna Mackle, is thought unlikely to be persuaded to apply.

Just as Mr MacGregor himself was wooed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to succeed Philippe de Montebello seven years ago, the search is likely to be international. It could also prompt unexpected leaps, such as that which saw then BBC news director Tony Hall head to the Royal Opera House in 2001.