Martin Roth and his museum for millions

From traditional Asian art to Michelangelo’s David, Martin Roth – the outgoing director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – has been responsible for the world’s most comprehensive collection of craft and design. Here, he presents a few of the collection’s more interesting, celebrated and unusual exhibits, expounding also on his responsibilities as museum manager, the importance of education, and his passion for motorcycles (the BMW R 1200 GS in particular).

Portrait of Martin Roth
Nick Ballon
(c) Victoria and Albert Museum
Violet Kiani

The Ardabil carpet

An imposing 33 feet 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 believed that the carpet was commissioned by Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili, who died in 1334. Says Roth, “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 doctorate in art history, Martin Roth was appointed director of the V&A in 2011, taking on the responsibility for a true cultural colossus. From his office in a wing of the museum, he has overseen the 150 rooms that attract over 3.7 million visitors each year.

A kimono, Muhammad Ali, and a fake Jacobsen chair

Left: Kimono of a Young Boy, 1937
This kimono print showing an airplane, 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 April 9, 1937. He was acclaimed a hero.
Center: Carl Fischer, Muhammad Ali
A homage to the boxer, portrayed here as St. Sebastian. “It’s an amazing photo,” exclaims Roth. “Muhammad Ali was 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.”
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,” says Roth. “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.”

Michelangelo’s David

Arguably one of the best-known and most reproduced sculptures in the world, this full-sized 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 that the National Gallery in London wanted to purchase; the sculpture first went on display in 1873.

Elytra Filament Pavilion

The installation is part of the V&A Engineering Season, which ran from May to November. Developed by a team of German architects and engineers, it was created using a novel robotic production process developed at the University of Stuttgart. Insect wings –elytra, technically – provided the inspiration for this design, which covers some 2000 square feet. “I chose the pavilion because we hope to do more in the future on the theme of creative engineering,” explains Roth. “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.”

Bold sketches by Joseph Paxton

This is the original sketch from 1850 of what would later become the Crystal Palace – together with a telegram to the wife of the architect Joseph Paxton. Within a week, this sketch would be translated into an extremely bold architectural design. “For me, it’s quite simply one of the most fascinating drawings of all time,” says Roth. “Prince Albert, who dreamed up the idea of the Great Exhibition, was not interested in a conventional building. Having rejected all previous designs, he commissioned the greenhouse architect Paxton to draft a preliminary sketch. This was risk-taking at its best, and it really paid off. Everything that was subsequently developed on this campus came about as a result of the Great Exhibition – from the Royal College and Royal College of Music to the Royal College of Art and the Royal Albert Hall.”

Seated at his uncluttered desk in a burgundy-colored office, Martin Roth is talking in German on the telephone, trying to rearrange flights to Los Angeles, Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro.

Yet the surroundings couldn’t be more British: we are in a wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the country’s largest museum, and one of the biggest in the world. The British refer to it simply as the V&A. Two letters is all it takes; everyone 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 UK is directed by a Swabian. His dialect is pronounced. “Since living abroad, my Swabian has become broader when I speak German,” he says. “It was the same when I worked in Paris.”

Since his appointment as director of the V&A in 2011, 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 like David Bowie and Alexander McQueen attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. The focus is on of pop cultural phenomena and iconic everyday objects, many of them the output of mass production. V&A exhibitions often confront visitors with such as, "What does art mean in the age of industrial production?" and "What is the relationship between an original, a copy and a forgery?" Indeed, 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 $87 million - just one of the many tasks assigned 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 yet demanding job, not unlike running a large company: procuring funding, lobbying, public relations, etc. 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 true 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-run museum since 2011. The $104,000 prize 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,” says Roth. “British institutions are – and have always been – open to the world.” As someone born in the 1950s, Roth considers himself more European than German, but notes that, “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 subsidize programs that support education,” says Roth, who sees this as an area that requires investment from all corners. “I have always respected BMW for this: this automotive company is not just about selling good cars and developing good technology, but is really also about training, liaising and 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, seeking out new challenges and spending more time with his family. He leaves at the pinnacle of his success and as one of the world’s most influential museum directors. In 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 at least four times a year, dividing 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 2007 BMW R 1200 GS motorcycle. “I’ve been riding motorbikes since I was 16,” he recalls. “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 graying hair!”

All images: (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Raphael’s priceless “cartoons”

Raphael’s seven so-called “cartoons” are among Britain’s most important art treasures. They were commissioned in 1515 for the Sistine Chapel by Pope Leo X. These huge drafts were intended as wall hangings for the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and cost five times as much as Michelangelo’s painting of the chapel’s ceiling. The cartoons have been on loan to the museum from the royal family since 1865.