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Beauty and Diplomacy: The Malcolm MacDonald Collection

MacDonald with his adopted father Temenggong Koh, Paramount Chief of the Iban tribe.

The Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald once said, “I like beauty. I love beauty. I worship beauty in all its earthly forms”. His adventures as a politician, diplomat and colonial administrator were perhaps only equalled by his passionate enthusiasm for the arts and collecting. 

The son of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Malcolm served as a cabinet minister in the 1930s before diplomatic postings to Canada, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. During the Cold War he became an informal envoy to Communist China, helping to bring about a new era of Anglo-Chinese partnership. 

The successful diplomat was only one side of Malcolm MacDonald. The other was a passionate, collector. The collections now housed at the Oriental Museum donated by MacDonald include beautiful objects from across Southeast Asia and his collection of Chinese ceramics spanning four thousand years of history. 

But art and beauty are not just about objects. MacDonald reflected that “one of the things one collects is people. I have made a fine collection through the last sixty years”. Personal relationships were central to his success as both a diplomat and collector. The objects in MacDonald’s collections tell of friendships with world statesmen, royalty, master craftsmen and Borneo head-hunters. By looking at these and other stories, this exhibition shows that MacDonald’s views on art, beauty and collecting were central to his success as a diplomat.