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Neil MacGregor announces last acquisitions before retiring from the British Museum

Outgoing director’s portrait by Wolfgang Tillmans and a Lampedusa Cross among works added to collection

A Lampedusa Cross and a portrait by the German photographer Wolfgang Tilmans are among Neil MacGregor’s last acquisitions before he retires from his role as the director of the British Museum.

The cross was donated by Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter from Lampedusa. He has made a series of simple crosses to commemorate the more than 350 eastern African migrants who drowned after a shipwreck off the Italian island in 2013.

The 38-cm tall cross, made from the weathered wood of the wreck, has been acquired by the museum’s department for Britain, Europe and Pre-history. It epitomises MacGregor’s major contribution as director: bringing greater internationalism and contemporary relevance to the collection. He hopes the Lampedusa Cross will encourage visitors to reflect on “a great migration, which may change the way we understand our continent”. It will go on display today (18 December) in Room 2.

One of the other final acquisitions under MacGregor is an official photograph of himself, taken by the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans. In a tradition stretching back 250 years, the British Museum collects portraits of retiring directors, but this is the first photograph. The others, all paintings (except for a sculpted bust of John Pope-Hennessy), hang in the boardroom and its anteroom.

MacGregor is believed to have been too busy to sit for a painting, so a photograph was commissioned from Tillmans. Commissioning a German artist happens to be symbolic since MacGregor’s next major assignment will take him to Berlin, to chair an advisory board on how Berlin’s Humboldt Forum should display world cultures.