A new breed of super-curators is taking over large museums and other key posts. Star performers are Neil McGregor, newly arrived at the British Museum, Charles Saumarez Smith at McGregor's former patch, the National Gallery, and Mark Jones at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Beyond the museum world, English Heritage has taken on a strong double helping of former curators, with Sir Neil Cossons, formerly head of the Science Museum as chairman, and most recently Simon Thurley, fresh from running the Museum of London, as its new chief executive.
These curator-directors could hardly be further removed from the caricature of archivist in pince-nez glasses emerging blinking from behind the museum cabinets. Thurley is already familiar as a TV pundit on historic buildings. He comes across as even more youthful than his 40 years and unflaggingly dynamic, articulate and charming. "An absolute intellect as well as an organiser," comments one admiring English Heritage commissioner. "Sir Neil is besotted."
Not yet seven months into the job, Thurley has already made his mark. He has unveiled plans for a visitor centre at Stonehenge that looks more like a landscape feature than a building. He has boosted English Heritage's campaign to save listed buildings at risk by brokering a 12-part TV series he likens to Pop Idol. And, this week, a 48-page book entitled Changing London, an Historic City for a Modern World, has been published as English Heritage's counterblast to Ken Livingstone's draft London plan, which Thurley castigates for failing to recognise that the capital is the product of 2000 years of evolution.
English Heritage's sallies out of the crenellated world of listed buildings to take potshots at proposed skyscrapers has drawn repeated criticism, particularly in the light of the government's approval of the 222 m high Heron Tower in the City of London, which the organisation fought against. Thurley is keen to rebut the widespread view that "we have something against tall buildings". He points out that English Heritage supported Foster's "erotic gherkin", now reaching its full height in the City, and Terry Farrell & Partners' proposed towers at Lots Road power station in Chelsea – even though both local boroughs opposed it.
That said, Thurley does have one proposed skyscraper of record-breaking height firmly in his sights – Renzo Piano's 310 m high London Bridge Tower, which he has slammed as "putting a spike through the heart of historic London, destroying views of two of the nation's most loved buildings – the Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral".
I am definitely not a civil servant. I am a bureaucracy buster. I loathe unnecessary paperwork and process
It would be hard to dress up these views as representing a break with existing policies at English Heritage. Perhaps the real significance of appointing an architectural historian and curator as chief executive is that the post is not primarily about policy formulation – that is for the chairman and 12 commissioners. Rather, it is about administrating the 1800-strong quango. "Until 2 April, the organisation had always been run by civil servants," he explains. "And we know how much civil servants like their paperwork. I am definitely not a civil servant. I am a bureaucracy buster. I loathe unnecessary paperwork and process. I am focused on getting results and making a difference."
Well, doesn't that make the chief executive role a poisoned chalice for Thurley? "I've never felt that, not even for a moment," he insists. Just the opposite, in fact: in seven months he has purged the former civil service quango like caustic soda down an ancient drainpipe. "There will be nobody in the executive board of five people who has worked for English Heritage for longer than 18 months. And in the level of directors down below that, we've got a whole tranche of younger people. There are at least two people in their 20s and many more women as well, which will balance up the talents and skills we have."
"We've had to do the reshuffle extremely fast," he continues, "because there's a great deal happening out there in the wider political world." He refers to the reform of the planning legislation and the reinvigoration of local authority planning departments, on both of which English Heritage is determined to have its say. Another of Thurley's goals is for the quango to give "an absolute world-class service", whether to architects seeking listed building advice or teachers planning a school trip to the local castle.
The role of chief executive of English Heritage can be seen as curator writ large, but instead of one museum, it involves looking after 400 historic buildings and ancient sites, not to mention the entire historic fabric of England's towns and cities. Underpinning that, Thurley believes, lies an even more important curatorial role – "to help as many people as possible understand and appreciate what we have got". This way, architects, builders and developers can do their bit in conserving and enhancing these valuable national assets.
Personal effectsWhat was the subject of your PHD thesis?
English Royal Palaces in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Did your career lead on from this?
Yes – my first job was as English Heritage inspector on Hampton Court. Then at the age of 28, I was appointed curator of Historic Royal Palaces. Some people have always looked on the burning of Hampton Court as very convenient for my career, but I deny it all.
Where do you live?
In Stepney in the East End, with my girlfriend.
What car do you drive?
A 1981 Mercedes SL convertible. I leave it in the basement of this building [in Mayfair].