Neil MacGregor was born in Glasgow to two doctors, Alexander and Anna MacGregor. At the age of nine, he first saw Salvador Dalí's Christ of Saint John of the Cross, newly acquired by Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery, which had a profound effect on him and sparked his lifelong interest in art. MacGregor was educated at Glasgow Academy and then read modern languages at New College, Oxford, where he is now an honorary fellow. The period that followed was spent studying philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (coinciding with the events of May 1968), and as a law student at Edinburgh University, where he received the Green Prize. Despite being called to the bar in 1972, MacGregor next decided to take an art history degree. The following year, on a Courtauld Institute (University of London) summer school in Bavaria, the Courtauld's director Anthony Blunt spotted MacGregor and persuaded him to take a master's degree under his supervision. Blunt later considered MacGregor "the most brilliant pupil he ever taught".
From 1975 to 1981, MacGregor taught History of Art and Architecture at the University of Reading. He left to assume the editorship of The Burlington Magazine. He oversaw the transfer of the magazine from the Thomson Corporation to an independent and charitable status.
In 1987 MacGregor became a highly successful director of the National Gallery in London. There he was dubbed "Saint Neil", partly because of his popularity at that institution and partly because of his devout Christianity, and the nickname stuck after his departure from the Gallery. During his directorship, MacGregor presented three BBC television series on art: Painting the World in 1995, Making Masterpieces, a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Gallery, in 1997 and Seeing Salvation, on the representation of Jesus in western art, in 2000. He declined the offer of a knighthood in 1999, the first director of the National Gallery to do so.
MacGregor was made director of the British Museum in August 2002, at a time when that institution was £5 million in deficit. He has been lauded for his "diplomatic" approach to the post, though MacGregor rejects this description, stating that "diplomat is conventionally taken to mean the promotion of the interests of a particular state and that is not what we are about at all". He has vowed never to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, saying that it is the museum's duty to "preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol". He did agree to discuss a loan of the marbles on the condition that Athens rejects all claims of ownership to them.
In January 2008, MacGregor was appointed chairman of the World Collections programme, for training international curators at British museums. The exhibition The First Emperor, focussing on Qin Shi Huang and including a small number of his Terracotta Warriors, was mounted in 2008 in the British Museum Reading Room. That year MacGregor was invited to succeed Philippe de Montebello as the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He declined the offer as the Metropolitan charges its visitors for entry and is thus "not a public institution". In 2010, MacGregor presented a series on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on objects from the British Museum's collection. From September 2010 to January 2011 the British Museum lent the ancient Persian Cyrus Cylinder to an exhibition in Tehran. This was seen by at least a million visitors by the Museum's estimation, more than any loan exhibition to the United Kingdom had attracted since the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972. On 4 November 2010 MacGregor was appointed to the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II.
In July 2011, MacGregor spoke at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh about the Cyrus Cylinder and provided a concise summary of the role the artefact has played in Middle East pol