Contemplating media coverage of Neil MacGregor’s resignation from the British Museum, one of my friends remarked ‘you’d think he ran the place on his own’. Most news reports of MacGregor’s intended departure last week had two common narrative elements: the extent to which he has reinvented the museum, and just how hard he will be to replace. This notion of the heroic leader may bring necessary narrative simplicity to organisational complexity. But the idea that MacGregor is the museum is a myth – even if some argue that his approach to broadcasting has done nothing to discourage it – and one that does no service to the richness and strangeness of the museum which employs him.
Not only is the BM’s narrative trajectory far more complicated than that of a Cinderella story moving from dust and obscurity to dazzling success, but no major institutional change is ever the sole creation of one individual. Museums are public institutions, and the kind of change that can happen in museums depends firstly on the backdrop of the broader financial, social and political circumstances of the time. Museums like the BM have a very long history, which also helps to determine what change is possible – not that a new leader is simply ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, but that they inevitably have to choose how to respond to that legacy. Especially in museums – organisations dedicated to preservation and continuity – it can never be year zero.
But most crucially, the culture of any large institution with hundreds of staff and volunteers is built on hundreds of thousands of relationships. Time for a bit of maths: in any given group where n is the number of members, the number of potential relationships within that group is n x (n-1)/2. So a museum with ten staff and volunteers has 10×9/2 potential relationships to contend with – 45. A museum with 1000 staff and volunteers has 499500 potential relationships which help shape its culture. The relationship between the leader and the others only accounts for 999 of those – or 0.2% of the total. Of course, some of those 1000 never meet – but that figure does point to an underlying truth. Not only is an organisation like the BM – one full of talented, clever and driven people – much more than its leader, it has a complex ecosystem of relationships which determine much of its character and will be affected but not reinvented by a change of leader.
The British Museum is not the only great European cultural establishment anticipating the departure of a charismatic leader. When Simon Rattle announced in 2013 that he would not renew his contract after 2018, speculation immediately began about who would replace him as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. News reports of his intended departure shared some of the tropes of those about MacGregor – charismatic, high profile leader transforms great institution, who can succeed him, etc. But there is a different element at play in the succession in Berlin where the final choice rests not with trustees, but with the orchestral players, who vote for their own leader. Staff at Bloomsbury do not get to choose their new leader, but they will continue to play by far the greater part in determining the culture of the organisation he or she takes on.