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New book explores the life of one of the Oriental Museum's most important donors

(6 December 2018)

The fascinating life of a politician, diplomat, collector and former Durham University Chancellor, Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald, is explored in a new book being launched by the Oriental Museum. 


The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting was written by Malcolm MacDonald himself, telling the stories of the head-hunters, antique dealers, royalty, indigenous craftsmen, statesmen and diplomats he met during his remarkable career.

MacDonald’s career as a politician and diplomat took him around the world from the 1920s to the 1970s. The son of former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, he was a passionate collector, interested in everything from European furniture to Canadian paintings and Asian antiquities. Collecting was not just a private hobby, but an expression of his political values and often played an important role in his unconventional diplomacy.

Oriental Museum Curator Rachel Barclay said: “MacDonald’s Chinese ceramics and other Asian antiquities are some of the most important collections now housed in the Oriental Museum. 

“Through his links to the Museum, MacDonald fell in love with Durham, serving as University Chancellor in the 1970s and leaving his extensive archive to Palace Green Library.

“The unpublished manuscript for this book was part of that archive. Thanks to the efforts of Leeds University PhD student, Alexander Shaw, we are now able to share this remarkable story.”

Shaw, a Cold War historian, curated the 2017 Oriental Museum exhibition Beauty and Diplomacy: The Malcolm MacDonald Collections as part of his PhD, which is when he became interested in publishing the book. 

He said: “There are several versions of the manuscript, written in the early 1970s. They included detailed notes that we were able to use such as which photographs MacDonald hoped to include. I worked with the Oriental Museum staff and MacDonald’s family to add essays which put the manuscript and the collection in a modern context. It is a fantastic story that I hope will help to increase recognition of this remarkable man.”

The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting by Malcolm MacDonald is now available for sale from the Oriental Museum, priced £12 in hardback. It is available to purchase online from the Durham University Shop

The creation of this book has been possible due to the generosity of the Friends of the Oriental Museum and the family of Malcolm MacDonald.