NS Interview - Neil MacGregor

As Iraq's treasures were looted, the British Museum's director furiously phoned No 10, demanding tan

Neil MacGregor likes flying, which is just as well. In the month following the sacking of Iraq's cultural treasures, the director of the British Museum seems rarely to have been off a plane. Just in from Los Angeles, he is evangelistic about air travel. "You can read and write as much as you like, sleep well and wake up for a cup of tea. I'm talking about economy," he adds hastily, lest I suspect him of being a club class sybarite.

Anyone mistaking the sardine life of a cut-price globe-trotter for a nice rest must work, as MacGregor does, at a punishing pace. As for cheap fares, a British Museum plagued by deficit and job cuts has long been at the bucket shop end of government handouts. This is the museum's 250th year, and MacGregor, in post for eight months, had expected to mark the anniversary in a worthy but frugal fashion.

Instead, the heritage of Iraq was looted, and he moved at a velocity that military strategists might envy. As Baghdad's treasures were ravaged, MacGregor flew back from Iran and phoned Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, for a government imprimatur on his plan to assemble an emergency team of scholars and conservators. Four days later, he was on the phone to No 10, furious that there were still no tanks to guard the buildings.

US troops arrived shortly afterwards, and so did Unesco's approval for the British Museum to lead an international task force including the Louvre, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan in New York and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. MacGregor's can-rattling has already helped raise "several hundred thousand pounds".

Such dynamism contrasts oddly with government lethargy. MacGregor says that his keeper of the Ancient Near East collection, John Curtis, along with another London-based Iraqi expert, wrote to the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to warn him of the likely devastation in Baghdad. What was the response? "Er, nothing in particular," MacGregor says. So the pre-war advice was ignored? "I'm not sure that's the language one can use. I think what one can say is that it clearly didn't determine action."

Does he yet know the scope of the damage? "All the small objects had been moved by the [Baghdad] museum to the Central Bank. We don't know yet what was taken from its vaults. Several dozen really major pieces have been stolen, and more than several dozen, mostly sculptures, have been smashed on site. And then the reserves have been ransacked. They do not know yet how badly, but the fact that several hundreds [of objects] have been returned suggests that many, many thousands have been pillaged. We have to anticipate very large losses."

Initially, MacGregor called the rout a "catastrophe". If anything, it looks worse now. "The loss and smashing of the iconic objects are catastrophic, but the reserves are really where scholarship and building the big story happen. Then there's the burning of the archives and the library. It looks as though all the records of the Ottoman period and centuries of Ottoman administration have been destroyed."

At the start of our interview, MacGregor dutifully hopes to concentrate on the museum's anniversary, but Iraq preoccupies him. "This is much more important," he says. "It is more urgent and the stakes are higher. Reminding everybody what the British Museum is for is very important, but the survival of the great museums of Mesopotamia is of a different order of importance."

Even so, MacGregor's linkage of two major institutions twinned by disaster must have rather confounded those who wondered why the fusty British Museum boasted no crowd-pullers such as "Matisse Picasso" or "Aztecs". (MacGregor's current show, "The Museum of the Mind", has been much praised, but it could not fairly call itself a blockbuster.) So how curious that a place more wary of "events" than Harold Macmillan should find itself, in its 250th year, at the centre of the world's stage. Or, as MacGregor says: "It is the world's stage."

This pivotal status seems to have eluded Gordon Brown. The price of wooing MacGregor from the National Gallery to an institution whose financial woes and staff unrest evoked the British Leyland of the 1970s was reported to be a one-off grant of up to £15m to bail out the museum and discharge its £6m debt. The money was never forthcoming.

MacGregor was instead accorded such a modest rise that his £36m grant will show a loss in real terms by 2005. One report says his purchasing power has dropped from £1.4m to £100,000, a sum that would barely fund a David Beckham shopping trip to Emporio Armani. Presumably, he is irked? "Well, it's always nice to have more money," he says tactfully. "The question really is what kind of British Museum you can run on that level of budget. It is certainly possible to run one that serves the public and is true to its core purposes."

But MacGregor, the ambitious localist and globalist, wants more than that. A five- to ten-year plan of building, reorganisation and repair will cost "many tens of millions", which he expects will be jointly funded by the private and public sector. He is eager to get the museum's collections out to the struggling regions, which have got some government help, "but not enough". And then he envisages a wider international role, befitting the museum's founding principles.

Enlightenment themes, MacGregor is sure, mesh with Brown's vision. "We've spoken about it, and the ideals of the British Museum are exactly his ideals. The same goes for the Prime Minister. The language of the mid-18th century is the language of now. It [the museum] is for everybody. It is about the whole world and not just Britain; all cultures and not just a privileged one; all religions and not just one."

Why then is No 11's Renaissance man seemingly so reluctant to bankroll the dream? "You would need to ask him," MacGregor says, but his own strategy is clear. He has hived £4bn off the deficit, trimmed the payroll by voluntary re- dundancy and sorted out the museum's governance. Like Oliver Twist, he will shortly be going back to the Treasury for more. By the autumn, he plans to be discussing a special-case grant. His house in order, he is confident of a "yes" from Brown.

Now aged 58, and a tenacious Glaswegian, MacGregor was called to the Scottish Bar until boredom with trust law drove him to study at the Courtauld Institute, where Anthony Blunt called him "the most brilliant student I have ever taught". A rank outsider for the National Gallery job, he was appointed after the first-choice candidate pulled out, to his own incredulity and that of the art world. One critic, searching for a term to encompass his lack of substance, described him as a "Haywain".

Sixteen years on, MacGregor has more resembled a Fighting Temeraire, sailing into battle first about museum charges, which he refused to apply at the National Gallery, and then about the plight of the regions. "Most people would feel that with so many great collections around the country, it would be very nice to see money circulating to make them secure and functioning better, rather than starting new museums."

He shows no resentment for glamorous private projects such as the Saatchi Gallery, saying the British Museum "is never going to be about fashion. Last year we had lectures on Afghanistan, because all Afghan history can be traced here. That's the equivalent of naked bodies on the Embankment for us."

But he is critical of a government cavalier, like its Tory predecessors, about its heritage. "It's not always apparent to politicians in Britain that visiting politicians think the National Gallery or the British Museum are among the most important things in London. It's often hard for them to make the adjustment and realise that while [museums] may not be important in the domestic agenda, they are very big news indeed on the international one. That is true of all our arts institutions."

Does he see himself as government crony or an irritant? "I can safely say I am an irritant; always boring on about free admission and, now, about government proclaiming the value of this place and recognising that it is a resource for the country and the world. I'm not very reticent, and I do bore them rigid on that score.

"I don't wait for the formal meetings. I just buttonhole as many of the cabinet as I can possibly get hold of." In his view, ministers do not constitute the great uncouth. But nor, in general, are Blair's team aesthetic Titans. "If you're a successful politician in France, or Germany or Italy, you simply have to have the high-culture profile. You will not be taken seriously by your countrymen unless you do. The average British politician will speak much less about high culture, because it's not part of our political language. But that doesn't mean they're not concerned. There's a reluctance to spend money, but that's true of the British government in any area." The most political of curators, MacGregor sees culture not as a bolt-on extra but as the bonding agent of a fractured world. If he were less modest, he might think that a government fumbling over Iraqi reconstruction could learn a thing or two from him.