Martin Roth and his museum for millions

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

The Ardabil carpet

At ten metres in length, the Ardabil carpet is one of the largest in the world. It was woven in the town of Ardabil in modern-day northwest Iran. It is thought the carpet was commissioned by Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili, who died in 1334. “I’m very involved in the region of Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey – one of the most beautiful, fascinating and culturally diverse areas on earth.”

Martin Roth at work

With a PhD in Art History, Martin Roth was appointed director of the V&A in 2011, taking on responsibility for a true cultural colossus. From his office in a wing of the museum he has overseen the museum’s 150 rooms, which each year attract over 3.7 million visitors.

A kimono, Muhammad Ali and Arne Jacobsen’s Office Chair

Left: Kimono Of A Young Boy, 1937
This kimono print showing an aeroplane, Mount Fuji and Tower Bridge commemorates an actual event: the first flight from Japan to Europe. The pilot, Masaaki Linuma, flew from Tokyo to London, landing at Croydon airfield on 9 April 1937. He was acclaimed a hero.

Michelangelo’s David

Centre: Carl Fischer, Muhammad Ali
A homage to the boxer, portrayed here as St Sebastian. “It’s an amazing photo. Muhammad Ali is a quirky figure. I think few people can be said to have been of stronger character. That’s why I admire him. And we have the original photo.”

Elytra Filament Pavilion

Right: Arne Jacobsen Office Chair, 1962
At first sight, call girl Christine Keeler is seated on the iconic Arne Jacobsen 3107 Chair, but in reality the chair is a copy of Jacobsen’s design. “I like this work because it says so much about the collection, about intercultural exchange and the relationship between originals and copies in this age of mass production. The photograph is of Keeler, who had a relationship with a politician and a Russian spy, in what became known as the Profumo Affair. That is the original photo and this is the chair she posed on for the photo. The original chair was a fake, so we have the original fake.”

Bold sketches by Joseph Paxton

Arguably one of the best-known and most reproduced sculptures in the world, this life-size reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, conqueror of the giant Goliath, was given to Queen Victoria by Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as a peace offering in 1857 – at a time when copying famous artworks was a lucrative business. The Duke had previously refused to let go of a painting which the National Gallery in London wanted to purchase. The sculpture first went on display in 1873.

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

The Raphael Cartoons

The installation is part of the “V&A Engineering Season”, which runs until 6 November 2016. It was developed by a team of German architects and engineers and realised using a novel robotic production process developed at the University of Stuttgart. Insect wings, or elytra, provided the inspiration for this design covering 200 square metres. “I chose the pavilion because we hope to do more in future on the theme of creative engineering. A large automotive design exhibition is slated for 2018/2019, for example. Although the V&A is essentially a museum for arts and crafts, it is and always has been a design museum. The inspiration this place exudes is amazing, but there’s also a need for more in the field of creative engineering – and not just in creative design.”