I read history and history of art at King’s College, Cambridge and, after a year at Harvard University as a Henry Fellow, returned to do a Ph.D. in Combined Historical Studies at the Warburg Institute.
After being a Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, I was appointed in 1982 as an Assistant Keeper in the Education Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with responsibility for the newly established MA in the History of Design, which was run jointly with the Royal College of Art.
In 1990, I became Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum and, in 1994, Director of the National Portrait Gallery. In 2002, I moved to being Director of the National Gallery and, in the same year, was Slade Professor at the University of Oxford. In 2007, I became Secretary and Chief Executive at the Royal Academy and was appointed as a Visiting Professor in the Graduate School for Humanities and Social Sciences, Queen Mary. I am a Trustee of the Public Catalogue Foundation, a Governor of the University of the Arts, a former President of the Museums Association, an Honorary Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and have honorary degrees from the Universities of London, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Westminster.
I began my academic career as an architectural historian, doing my PhD on issues of "Charles Howard, third Earl of Carlisle and the Architecture of Castle Howard". At the V&A, my interests extended to the history of design and material culture.
Since becoming Director of the National Portrait Gallery, I have written and published mainly on the history of museums.
My first book, The Building of Castle Howard, was awarded the Alice David Hitchcock Medallion for architectural history. My most recent book, The National Gallery: a short history, was published in 2009 and ‘The Institutionalisation of Art in Early Victorian England’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 20, 2010, pp.113-125.