The British Museum has had its most successful year since it started counting visitors - and probably since its foundation in 1753. In the financial year 2007-08, a record 6 million people came through the doors, including 35,000 who visited on a single day to celebrate the Chinese new year.
The museum's director, Neil MacGregor, said: "We had to shut the main gates on Great Russell Street to prevent more people from coming in. It was the first time we did that since the Chartist riots of 1848 - although on that occasion the staff were actually on the roof, armed with stones."
The 6.049 million total number of visitors - up by more than a million on the previous year - means that the museum beat Tate Modern to become the most visited cultural attraction in the UK.
It is a measure of this success that MacGregor was headhunted to become director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, following the announcement of the retirement of Philippe de Montebello, in January.
However, MacGregor, 62, announced yesterday that he had signed a contract to run the British Museum for a further five years. This will take his tenure up to the Olympic year of 2012 - and means he should see through the redevelopment of the north-west corner of the museum into new galleries for large temporary exhibitions.
"I had conversations with the Met," he said, "but on the basis that I was going to stay here. I had conversations with them about what their future plans might be - but not as a candidate. I made that clear from the start."
MacGregor said his desire to stay at the helm of the museum came from the idea that "the opportunities and challenges for a world collection in London are limitless - greater than anywhere else in the world. There are very few other places, if anywhere, that you can look at 20th century American prints, and ancient Chinese art, and statues of Hadrian, in one building. And the Met is not a public museum - whereas the British Museum is a public institution and the public museums of London have always been free to everyone."
Other successes have included the touring of exhibitions to Dubai and, currently, a show about the ancient Olympic games in Shanghai, which is attracting up to 5,000 visitors a day. That exhibition will also tour to Hong Kong, where it will be seen during the Beijing games. But the biggest single success was the First Emperor exhibition, with its sculptures from the terracotta army, which brought 850,000 people to Bloomsbury, the most for an exhibition there since Tutankhamun attracted 1.7 million in 1972.
MacGregor announced the final instalments of a group of exhibitions designed to examine the nature of empire and power. The first was the terracotta army exhibition; the second is the forthcoming Hadrian show, which opens this month.
The quartet is to be completed, announced MacGregor, by an exhibition about Shah Abbas, the great 16th- to 17th-century ruler of Persia who combined personal brutality (killing and blinding his sons) with an unparalleled religious tolerance. The final of the four, for autumn 2009, will look at Moctezuma, and the collision of his successful and expanding Aztec empire with Europeans in the early 16th century.
Excitement is already building around Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, which opens on July 24, and has sold 10,000 advance tickets. The exhibition will include some sensational new finds, such as a monumental stone head of the emperor excavated in Sagalassos, Turkey, last year. The head has never before been seen in public, even in Turkey, and is being exhibited in London only after what the curator, Thorsten Opper, described as "complex negotiations.
"You can probably still smell the soil on it," he said.
The exhibition will also aim to debunk various received ideas about the Spaniard, who ruled the Roman empire when it stretched from the Scottish lowlands to the Persian Gulf, and from the Atlantic to the Euphrates.
Hadrian's Wall, it will be suggested, was probably far from a tool of peace and stability, as has often been assumed. Instead, Opper likened it to Israel's "security barrier" on the West Bank. "There is no real evidence that it was to keep the Scots out; more likely an active tool of suppression, dividing the tribes. We have been brought up to imagine it was the bad guys north of the wall and the good guys south - but it was the same people on either side," he said.
Opper said Hadrian's reign was suffused with parallels to our own times. "He left an immense legacy for us all, even if we are not aware of it. His first act was to withdraw his overstretched army from Iraq - which goes to show Roman history isn't remote, and isn't done and dusted."
Hadrian's immediate predecessor, Trajan, had conquered the Parthian empire, which included modern Iraq. According to Opper: "When Trajan reached Basra, he made speeches about how it was a shame he couldn't carry on into India like Alexander the Great. But while he was making these statements, there was already an insurgency."
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