In Conversation with Martin Roth, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 2011 to 2016. First published in ELLE Decoration in May 2012.
Martin Roth joined the V&A as its chief guardian in September 2011; previously he’d been director general of the Dresden State Art Collections. His mission there had been to reconnect Dresden to the rest of the world. As he put it, ‘I wanted to re-establish it as a hub, the way it was in the 1920s and 30s.’ And arguably, he succeeded. However the V&A is a ready-made hub at the heart of an already throbbing city, so I asked him what was his goal here? ‘I want the V&A to join the debate, to be an opinion leader,’ he says. ‘The V&A is like a beautiful ocean liner that needs a tugboat to pull it in new directions. Those tugboats are the exhibitions and the collaborations with other museums and cities.’ And, one imagines, Roth sees himself as the biggest tugboat. But is the V&A ready for this? ‘I think they’ve been very brave in hiring me,’ he states with a heartily refreshing directness. ‘It’s a real statement! A German! It’s a privilege.’ Does he think his nationality is that significant? He pauses, then says simply, ‘It creates a different mindset,’ before going on to freely admit that he was born at a time when ‘no-one wanted to be German’ (1955).
‘I was 13 during the 1968 student revolutions. I was a rebellious child. I still am.’ The implication is the possession of a steely determination to overcome obstacles and a will to make things happen, quickly; ‘speed’ and ‘passion’ being words he uses frequently. ‘As I see it, the museum has two objectives,’ he says. ‘It’s an archive to protect significant objects for the next generations, but, it means nothing if it’s not used. The overlaps between architecture, sculpture, digital, art: this is the future. The museum has an important role to play here.’
Thus, at Britain’s leading museum of art and design, building on the legacy of former director Sir Mark Jones’ ambitious FuturePlan initiative of restoration and redesign, the road ahead looks promising. But what about the 20th Century Galleries, which arguably are something of a weak link in the museum’s arsenal of wonder. Can we be assured of a commitment to bring those up to date? ‘Yes, absolutely!’ Result.
Tell me five words to describe yourself. Modest. Arrogant. Curious. Passionate. Determined.
What’s your favourite film? Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, with Bob Dylan, directed by Sam Peckinpah. But I’ve not seen it for a long time.
What’s your favourite kind of music? It’s a Bob Dylan thing. I followed his life. I went to his last concert in London with my children. Also Bach.
Who’s your favourite writer? Philip Roth. And not because of the name! I think I’ve read everything by him.
What book are you reading right now? The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century by Peter Watson (Simon & Schuster, £30). I’ve just started it.
Who is your favourite painter? Gerhard Richter. We worked together a lot. I really admire what he’s done and the variety of his work.
If you could be a different nationality, what would you be? If I had to choose one, Canadian. I like the cultural construction of this nation.
Who is your favourite fictional hero? I don’t have one.
You’re having a dinner party and you can invite six people from the past or present. Who would you invite? Einstein, definitely. George Clooney, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, my wife. I always wanted to meet Brigitte Bardot. But perhaps Amy Winehouse instead.
Tell me something that really annoys you. Everything that’s slow annoys me.
Your house is on fire. What do you grab? The dog and the cat? I think it would be terrible to lose family memories, photos, films, things like that. I have a few paintings that are important to me, too.
Do you collect anything? I started and stopped myself. Collecting is difficult for me. It’s the museum’s job.
What do you think you’d taste like? Very conservative in a mix that’s somehow very functional. Dry. Very dry.
If you were an animal, what would you be? Oh that’s easy, the one up in the mountains with the huge horns – an Alpine ibex.
When you were a child, what did you want to be? A Formula One driver! I grew up close to a race track. I saw all the early racing cars.
What was your worst subject at school? I hated school. I didn’t like being told what to do. I was a rebellious child. I still am.
What star sign are you? Capricorn.
Do you believe in luck? Luck is something we don’t understand. I know it exists, though.
Do you have a motto? The higher you get, the deeper you fall.
I was very saddened to hear that Martin died at the age of 62 on 6 August 2017. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him during my time as a Trustee of the V&A. He was visionary, open, accessible and a force for good. He is greatly missed.