British museum

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British Museum Sorts Things Out

After 250 years, director wants 'world under one roof' again


1. With the National Gallery advancing smoothly, Tate Britain and Tate Modern drawing bigcrowds, and the Victoria and Albert Museum once again in vogue, the British Museum has stood out lately as the “sick man” of London's great museums. Even praise for its resplendent new glass-coveredGreat Court was soon overshadowed by budget deficits, staff cuts, closed galleries and an unprecedented one-day strike.

2. Little wonder that the 250th anniversary of the founding of the BritishMuseum has been a low-key affair. Three years ago the plan was to honor the occasion with the opening of a new $55 million study center in a nearby building. But lacking money the museum sold theproperty. So instead of a glitzy inauguration, anniversary festivities this month are built around music, dance, lectures and exhibitions.

3. Yet for all that, the mood inside the museum's sprawlingneoclassical home in Bloomsbury is not glum, most probably thanks to Neil MacGregor, who last year took over as the museum's director. lt helped that he had a reputation for scholarship and administrationgained during his 15 years as director of the National Gallery. Already he has taken a course that should lead the museum toward calmer waters.

4. His immediate task has been to sort out themuseum's finances. But less prosaically he says he plans to gather its collections scattered around London and return them home to rejoin the museum's panoramic display of world civilization, starting withtreasures from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, much of it collected during the glory days of the British Empire.

5. "We'll be back to 1753 with the whole world under one roof,'' MacGregorsaid.

6. His reference to 1753, the year the British Museum was founded around Hans Sloane's personal collection, is hardly coincidental. MacGregor said that the spirit of the Enlightenment that...