AN extraordinary collection of artefacts built up during an extraordinary life will be the centrepiece of a new exhibition which opens today.

Eccentric British diplomat Malcolm MacDonald, who conducted some of the most sensitive negotiations during the most dangerous decades of British history, privately built up an eclectic collection of objects during his time overseas.

After retirement from politics, he went on to serve as Chancellor of Durham University for nine years and an exhibition of his collection, Beauty and Diplomacy, is being staged at the Oriental Museum in the city.

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Among the more unusual items in the remarkable collection is a head-hunting sword presented to him by his adopted father Temenggong Koh, a xylophone given by his personal friend King Sihanouk of Cambodia and rare pieces of imperial Chinese ceramic art.

MacDonald, who counted world leaders and royalty across Asia and Africa among his friends, once proclaimed that “I like Beauty, I love Beauty, I worship Beauty in all its earthly forms”.

The exhibition has been created by Alexander Shaw, PhD researcher in Cold War secret intelligence history at the University of Leeds.

He said: “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, one of whom Durham University can be proud to celebrate.”

MacDonald was the son of Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald and was elected MP for Bassetlaw in 1929.

When his father formed the National Government in 1931, Malcolm MacDonald abandoned Labour to join his father and was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1935.

He served as Minister for Health in Churchill’s war cabinet and in 1940 was entrusted to lead secret but ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with Eamon De Valera, offering to end the Partition of Ireland if the Irish Free State would join the war against Germany.

After the war, he emerged as one of Britain’s most respected diplomats, as governor general of Kenya, high commissioner to Canada, governor general of Malaya in high commissioner of India.

Among the high points of his career was his cooperation with the Soviet Union to end the civil war in Laos in 1962, which diffused a dangerous Cold War crisis and helped prevent a spread of the conflict ongoing in Vietnam.

Following his official retirement, MacDonald served as a top secret back-channel contact between Britain and communist China, capitalising on his personal friendship with Chinese leaders.

He was appointed Chancellor of Durham University in 1971, but continued to play 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.

The 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 history.

Beauty and Diplomacy opens to the public today and runs until January 14.

For more details, visit the museum website: durham.ac.uk/oriental.museum/

The Oriental Museum is open from Monday to Friday, from 10am to 5pm and Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays, from noon to 5pm.

Entry to the museum is £1.50 for adults, 75p for children and over 60s, and free for children under five and students.