Restoring the British Museum

By Professor Anand Narasimhan and Term Research Professor Jean-Louis Barsoux

This is an unusual turnaround case in that it involves a public sector institution, the British Museum (BM). The case study covers the period from around 1999 to 2010. It focuses more particularly on the arrival of Neil MacGregor, in August 2002, as the new director of the museum. When he took over, the BM was one year short of its 250th anniversary. It was also in debt and out of fashion. It had acquired a reputation as “one of the least user-friendly museums in the world.” One senior figure from the museum was even quoted as saying that he didn’t want children in there. Compared to rival venues, visiting the BM was like a “trip back in time” – but not in a favorable sense. In the space of nine years, MacGregor reversed its fortunes and restored its sense of pride and purpose. He raised its profile through engaging exhibitions, television shows and the Internet – but most surprisingly of all through the use of radio. He presided over a startling transformation in the image and fortunes of the BM, with net income quadrupling in nine years and donations and legacies growing eight-fold under his watch. Visitor numbers reached record highs and the BM has become a template for other museums. A cultural institution that was once in danger of becoming an embarrassing monument to British imperialism is now viewed with pride. As one commentator put it: “As an exercise in rebranding, it is surely up there with the best.” The case considers the methods used by MacGregor to achieve these results and some of the key turning points, as well as the lessons for other organizations, including in the private sector. It also explores the possible complications of following a charismatic leader. Learning objectives: The case covers six key issues to do with leadership and organizational change: 1) The difficulties of changing an entrenched public sector culture, shaped by curatorial divisions and the weight of the BM’s heritage. 2) The challenge of managing multiple stakeholders. 3) The various roles adopted by a leader – and changing the scope of the job. 4) The importance of finding a purpose that resonates with employees and visitors alike. 5) The process of institutional transformation and the challenge of building on MacGregor’s legacy. 6) The benefits and drawbacks of charismatic leadership.

Learning Objective

The case covers six key issues to do with leadership and organizational change:

  1. The difficulties of changing an entrenched public sector culture, shaped by curatorial divisions and the weight of the BM’s heritage.
  2. The challenge of managing multiple stakeholders.
  3. The various roles adopted by a leader – and changing the scope of the job.
  4. The importance of finding a purpose that resonates with employees and visitors alike.
  5. The process of institutional transformation and the challenge of building on MacGregor’s legacy.
  6. The benefits and drawbacks of charismatic leadership.
KeywordsAlignment, Authenticity, Charisma, Culture, Customer Experience, General Management, Influence, Leading Change, Mission, Organizational Change, Public Sector, Purpose, Stakeholder Analysis, Strategy, Turnaround
Settings1999-2010
TypeField Research
Copyright©2012
LanguageEnglish
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Reference: IMD-3-2230

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Reference: IMD-3-2230

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