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Wednesday, 31 July, 2002, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
Tough task for British Museum boss
Museum staff on strike
Museum staff recently went on strike over job cuts

The new head of the British Museum, who takes over on Thursday, has quite a job on his hands.

Neil MacGregor has left his post at London's National Gallery, where he was widely seen as both an artistic and financial success, for the cash-strapped, beleaguered museum.

But he is keen to jump into the hot seat, and said it would be an honour working at one of the "great museums of the world".

Having been director of the National Gallery, he is used to a challenge, and successfully oversaw the completion of its new Sainsbury wing and refurbishment of the main display.

Neil McGregor
Neil McGregor has an impressive CV
He was also credited with breathing new life into its exhibitions, and gained prestigious pieces of art including Stubbs's Whistlejacket and Holbein's The Lady with a Squirrel.

Praise was also heaped on him when he studied at the Courtauld Institute under Anthony Blunt, the Soviet spy, according to a recent report.

Mr Blunt was said to have described Mr MacGregor as "the most brilliant student I have ever had".

Mr MacGregor certainly comes with an impressive curriculum vitae.

Former boss Dr Anderson
Former boss Dr Anderson: "More cash is needed"
After reading French and German at New College, Oxford, he studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.

He also managed to get a law degree from Edinburgh University under his belt before pitting his wits at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he studied 17th and 19th Century art.

From 1975 to 1981 he was a lecturer in the history of art and architecture at the University of Reading, and also lectured part-time at the Courtauld.

He has been a staunch defender of his work at the National, and recently hit back at criticisms that it did not display art after 1900.

Great Court
The Great Court is closed at night due to lack of visitors
The museum's new head will certainly need all of his skills if he is to walk the financial tightrope awaiting him.

The British Museum needs an extra £10m a year to beat its financial problems, according to its outgoing director, Dr Robert Anderson, who said government cuts have left it with 30% less than it received in 1992.

It currently receives £35m per year from the government, and Dr Anderson recently told BBC News Online that this was simply not enough.

But although the job will undoubtedly be tough and stressful, it should not be forgotten that it is also incredibly prestigious.

The British Museum, which celebrates its 250th anniversary next year, is one of the world's most famous, respected institutions.

Cleopatra sculpture
The museum had a Cleopatra exhibition last year
It boasts a vast array of artefacts from around the globe, including the largest collection of ancient Egyptian material outside Cairo and the controversial Elgin Marbles.

It employs a highly qualified, dedicated workforce which is keen to preserve its status.

Many of them recently went on strike in protest at 150 jobs being shed over the next two years to combat a £5m deficit by 2005.

Mr MacGregor, 55, will have to contend with staff anger at the museum's financial predicament, while maintaining his relations with the government.


Tessa Blackstone, minister of state for the arts, wrote in The Times on 28 July that Mr MacGregor's appointment was agreed by the prime minister, and that "the government enjoys excellent relations with him".

She hotly defended its financial record, saying that since 1997-98, the museum's funding "has increased by 4.7% in real terms".

"Government spending on culture and the arts is at an all-time high," she said.

It will not be long before Mr MacGregor finds out whether this is really the case.

BBC News Online looks at how the arts are funded in the UKArts funding
How the UK's cash for the arts is spent
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