Beauty and Diplomacy: the Malcolm MacDonald Collections

Alex Shaw

A new exhibition exploring the role of art collector, Cold War diplomat and former Durham University Chancellor Malcolm MacDonald played in international affairs opens this week.

Malcolm MacDonald was the son of Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. After a successful career as a Member of Parliament and Cabinet minister, Malcolm became a diplomat. He excelled as an international negotiator, earning the respect and friendship of many world leaders and royalty across Asia and Africa from the 1940s to 1960s. One of the high points of his career was when Malcolm cooperated with the Soviet Union to chair an international summit which ended the civil war in Laos in 1962. Malcolm defused a dangerous Cold War crisis and helped prevent a spread of the conflict ongoing in Vietnam. Following his official retirement, he served as a top secret back-channel contact between Britain and communist China, capitalising on his personal friendship with Chinese leaders. Whilst also serving as Chancellor of Durham University in the 1970s, Malcolm played an important role in helping to open up China to the West. He had an unconventional personality and would even break up boring meetings by showing off his ability to walk on his hands.


Beauty and Diplomacy: The Malcolm MacDonald Collections showcases Malcolm’s international activities as an eccentric diplomat and eclectic private collector. He once proclaimed that “I like Beauty, I love Beauty, I worship Beauty in all its earthly forms”. Malcolm collected many things, including over 400 pieces of imperial Chinese ceramic art as well as unique personal gifts such as a xylophone from his friend King Sihanouk of Cambodia and the head-hunting sword of his adopted father, Borneo head-hunter Temenggong Koh.  Using items from his collections as well as the photographs of Malcolm’s friend K. F. Wong, this exhibition shows how Malcolm’s personal friendships and artistic passions contributed to his success as a prominent British diplomat during a dangerous and exciting period of recent history.


This exhibition has been created by Mr Alexander Nicholas Shaw, PhD researcher in Cold War secret intelligence history at the University of Leeds, in partnership with Durham University’s Oriental Museum.  Alexander said: “The story of Malcolm MacDonald is not only a special chapter in the history of Durham University but also of international significance in understanding British foreign policy. Malcolm’s diplomatic achievements and unique personality are of exceptional relevance to the changing world we live in today. With the uncertainties of Brexit, rise of new nuclear powers and the presidency of Donald Trump, the question of what makes a good diplomat is increasingly in the public eye. Malcolm’s story as a collector also helps us rethink the legacy of the private collectors who have contributed to so many of our wonderful museums. Were people like Lord Elgin and Malcolm MacDonald looters, imperialists, conservationists, scholars or connoisseurs? We are fortunate that Malcolm was a collector with a strong social conscience. He actively supported attempts to prevent the export of cultural treasures from China, and only bought ceramics which were already abroad in places like Hong Kong and Singapore. He also believed in the power of art as a way of creating new national identities in post-colonial countries such as Malaysia and Kenya. This makes him quite a unique figure, certainly one of hugely underestimated international significance, and one of whom Durham University can be proud to celebrate.”


Beauty and Diplomacy is a collaborative exhibition developed by Alexander Nicholas Shaw, the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the University of Leeds and Durham University’s Oriental Museum. It presents research undertaken by the Mr Shaw’s AHRC funded PhD project into Malcolm MacDonald and his spies. 


Beauty and Diplomacy opens to the public on Friday 20 October 2017 and runs until Sunday 14 January 2018. For more details, visit the museum website


The Oriental Museum is open Monday - Friday, 10am - 5pm and Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays, 12pm - 5pm. Entry to the museum is £1.50 for adults, 75p for children (five-16) and Over 60s, and free for children under five and students.