From traditional Asian art to Michelangelo’s David – the outgoing director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Martin Roth, has been responsible for the world’s most comprehensive collection of craft and design. For BMW Magazine he presents a few of the collection’s more interesting, celebrated or unusual exhibits. In the interview he explains his job as museum manager, the importance of education and his passion for motorcycles – in particular the BMW 1200 GS.
- Portrait Martin Roth
- Nick Ballon
- (c) Victoria and Albert Museum
- Violet Kiani
Seated at his uncluttered desk in a burgundy-coloured office, Martin Roth is talking in German on the telephone. He’s trying to rearrange flights to Los Angeles, Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro.
The surroundings couldn’t be more British. We are in a wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the country’s largest museum, one of the biggest in the world, in fact. The British refer to it simply as the V&A. Two letters is all it takes, everyone here knows what you’re talking about. Roth is wearing a suit and tie with the look of Savile Row about it. And if we hadn’t already heard him talking, we would never have suspected that the most traditional museum in the kingdom is directed by a Swabian. His dialect is pronounced. “Since living abroad, my Swabian has become broader when I speak German,” he said. “It was the same when I worked in Paris.”
Since his appointment as director of the V&A in 2011, cultural academic Martin Roth has been responsible for a true colossus. Around 3.7 million people visit the museum’s 150 rooms each year. Housing the world’s largest collection of art and design, its exhibitions on celebrities such as David Bowie and Alexander McQueen attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. The focus is on important phenomena of pop culture and iconic everyday objects, many of them the output of mass production. V&A exhibitions often confront visitors with the same sort of questions: what does art mean in the age of industrial production? What is the relationship between an original, a copy and a forgery? And these are the same themes raised by Martin Roth’s selection of objects from the collection for BMW Magazine.
Every year the museum has to find £70 million, just one of the many tasks accruing to its director. Although he dislikes the term “cultural administrator”, Roth’s job is to manage the 160-year-old cultural inheritance. It is a creative job, a hard job, not unlike running a large company – procuring funding, lobbying, public relations. The paramount task is to create a museum that reflects the basic principle under which it was founded by Prince Albert: a museum for everyone, a palace for the people.
Roth’s approach has proved successful: the V&A has just been voted Art Fund Museum of the Year for 2016 – a prize that has not been awarded to a state museum since 2011. The EUR 100,000 prize money is set to be invested in projects to support the nation’s cultural life.
“The fact that someone like me was parachuted into this job speaks volumes: British institutions are – and have always been – open to the world.” As someone born in the 1950s, Roth considers himself more European than German. “The question is what influence we as cultural institutions can have on society in general.” One solution may be to continue activities at the international level – the V&A is currently supporting development of a new museum in China, along with several ongoing joint ventures in the Middle East. “But there is also a lot of work to be done at the national level. We continue to subsidise programmes that support education.” As Roth says, that is an area which requires investment everywhere. “I have always respected BMW for this. The auto industry is not just about selling good cars and developing good technology, it’s really also about training, liaising, bringing in young people.”
Martin Roth initiated many projects before making his surprise announcement in September 2016 that he would be leaving the Victoria and Albert Museum after five years in the job to seek out new challenges and spend more time with his family. He leaves at the pinnacle of his success and as one of the world’s most influential museum directors. From 2017, the 62-year-old is to take up a new honorary position in Germany. As President of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations he will be responsible for “cultural diplomacy” in all its facets. In that role he will travel to Stuttgart four times a year, probably more. He will divide the rest of his time between regular trips and a second home in Vancouver. Roth is an avid car collector – we’re talking double digits here – although in Canada his vehicle of choice is a BMW motorcycle (R 1200 GS, 2007). “I’ve been riding motorbikes since I was 16. I bought my first when I was 18 and you’re never too old for it. On a motorcycle you can really be any age you want – your helmet hides the greying hair.”
All images: (c) Victoria and Albert Museum