(P.97) Whizz Kid for English Heritage

by Maev Kennedy, Arts & Heritage Correspondent, The Guardian, 13/12/01

The boy wonder of the museum world, Simon Thurley, director of the Museum of London, is to become the head of English Heritage, where his career began as a historic monuments inspector.

Mr Thurley, 39, had been regarded as a candidate for the National Portrait Gallery, if its director, Charles Saumarez Smith, moves to the National Gallery - and as an outside candidate for the National itself. However, he gave a clue last week that his future might not lie in a picture gallery, when he said: "Anyone can show flat art, it's easy."

Mr Thurley has left even his enemies gasping at his energy and appetite for hard work. He combines an impeccable academic background with a flair for publicity. When his archaeologists dug up a stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, containing a superbly decorated sealed lead coffin, he took it straight to the museum's galleries instead of a conservation laboratory. The coffin of the "Roman Lady" was opened live on television, punters queued outside the museum the next morning, and the story went round the world.

He will need all his charisma and political nous at English Heritage, to succeed in a job which has chewed up and spat out incumbents in the past five years.

The first chief executive of the conservation quango was Jenny Page, who left to head the Millennium Commission and was given the nightmare job of getting the dome finished and open on time: she did both, but was sacked as visitor numbers plummeted after opening. She was succeeded by Chris Green, who fell out with the then chairman, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, and left to run Virgin Trains. The last occupant was Pam Alexander, who was forced out of the job 18 months early, after disagreements over management style with the new chairman, Sir Neil Cossons.

Mr Thurley was the first curator of Historic Royal Palaces, which runs the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court - where he was responsible for the repair work after the disastrous fire in 1986.

He took over at the Museum of London five years ago and transformed its fortunes, increasing visitor numbers from 250,000 to nearly 400,000, even before entry became free two weeks ago. He has just opened an £11m gallery at the museum and started a major redevelopment programme.

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