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Neil MacGregor’s modern museums

In a new BBC radio show, the art historian tests his theory that museums are not just a window into the past, but contemporary cultural experiences.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“Museums are about the past. At least, that’s what I used to think.” So intones Neil MacGregor (who seems more than ever to be the human embodiment of “highbrow” British culture) at the start of his new show The Museums That Make Us, airing daily on BBC Radio 4 for two weeks from Monday 7 March. He claims museums are not merely a window into earlier times, but contemporary cultural experiences that reveal to us something about “who we want to be”. The series asks museums up and down the country to present an object that demonstrates how they are engaging with their communities today, and takes in everything from the Tower Museum in Derry to the Food Museum in Stowmarket, Suffolk. So it feels a little odd that MacGregor begins in the manicured gardens of Stowe in Buckinghamshire, a sprawling, neoclassical National Trust home, seen most recently on screen in the grand ball sequence in the first episode of Bridgerton.

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MacGregor is here to show us the Temple of British Worthies, a curved structure built in the 1730s that houses portraits of 16 British “greats” including Alfred the Great, Shakespeare, Milton, Isaac Newton and Elizabeth I (the only woman). It is, MacGregor explains, “one of the first national halls of fame”, a catalogue of “18th-century role models for the future”. Gravel crunching underfoot, MacGregor speaks to the historian Richard Wheeler, who explains the references to Virgil and Ovid sprinkled around the site and the symbolism behind the garden’s Paths of Vice and Virtue. All this information delivered in that particular croaky, plummy voice heard exclusively in BBC programmes on British history. So far, so traditional.

At the end of the episode, the curator Gillian Mason explains how, in 2018, Stowe asked visitors to vote for a modern version of the Worthies – the resulting line-up comprised 15 women, including Beatrix Potter and Ada Lovelace, and one man (David Attenborough). In future episodes, MacGregor will visit the Hepworth in Wakefield and the Museum of Making in Derby.

The Museums That Make Us
BBC Radio 4, airs daily 7-18 March, 1.45pm

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror