V&A’s New German Boss Shuns Titles, Drives Fast Car: Interview

Martin Roth
Martin Roth, the new director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Roth was previously the head of the Dresden State Art collections in Germany. Photographer: Juergen Loesel/V&A via Bloomberg

Martin Roth, the first non-Briton to run the Victoria & Albert Museum, tools around London in a classic Porsche.

After a decade running the Dresden State Art Collections -- a complex of 12 museums -- Roth joins the very British 159-year-old institution that just had a 120 million pound ($192 million) overhaul and needs roughly as much to finish modernizing. His aim is a more international V&A that reaches out to such places as China, Brazil or even Iran.

“It’s like a beautiful ocean liner, the V&A,” Roth, 56, says. “But then there are slightly different things that we have to bring in.”

“Let’s go abroad and create even more connections to other museums and institutions around the globe,” says the gray-haired new director, dressed in a well-cut navy suit.

Roth greets visitors warmly in an office with blue-gray walls, emptied shelves and frames waiting to go up. One is a black-and-white photograph of the back of German artist Gerhard Richter’s head (the picture is by Anton Corbijn). Roth has had his professorial titles taken off his new business card, and his cellphone number put on.

His predecessor Mark Jones “left footprints like this,” he says, hands wide apart, and they’re “hard to fit into.” Yet as he reels off possible gaps in the collection -- architecture, product design -- you know change is under way.

Ruffling Feathers

Roth is an intruder in the insular world of U.K. museum management, where the mostly British directors become national treasures and get knighthoods. His appointment led the Daily Telegraph to wonder why the U.K. lacked homegrown talent.

The newcomer is unfazed; German or not, he was the choice of the V&A’s dynamic chairman, Paul Ruddock. Initially, a headhunter e-mailed him for advice on filling an unspecified London vacancy. When she called, Roth, who was driving, quickly gave three British names. Then he realized he was the target.

Roth’s life has been shaped by the two world wars. Born in a village outside Stuttgart, he is the only child of an electrician father and a tailor mother who never knew her own dad: He died in World War I before she was even born.

Young Martin’s mother pressured him to strive for a better life. “‘This is what we expect from you!’” he recalls her saying. “That was sometimes great, and sometimes a burden.”

He became a conscientious objector -- “none of this war business” -- and, incredibly, had to “prove in front of a committee that I’m serious, that it’s not a kind of camouflage, that I’m really against the war.”

As a cultural anthropology student in Tuebingen he grew to like museums, and co-founded one in an abandoned 19th-century jewelry factory. For his Ph.D., he spent two years in Paris.

Thinking Differently

“I had a great design for my research, and I did nothing, because Paris was so exciting,” he says, recalling his awe at seeing famous philosophers in the canteen. Instead of being scolded by supervisors for his low output, he was commended for learning to think differently. That has become his mantra.

After German reunification, Roth curated for the German Historical Museum in Berlin, and ran the Hygiene Museum, which focuses on science, in Dresden.

Heading Dresden’s sprawling museum complex from 2001, he had the bombed Historic Green Vault treasure chamber reopened, and ordered the rebuilding of the ruined royal palace. He drove around the city in a 1995 Porsche 911 -- one of the last with an air-cooled engine -- that is now with him in London.

Dresden was a “marathon” job, which he terms “my contribution to the kind of peace and freedom that we have right now” -- though Roth insists he’s no nationalist.

“If you are German and you are born in 1955, you are not proud to be German,” he says.

The London offer came just in time. “When I was 20, I always promised to myself: never go around in circles,” he says. “Not for money, not for nothing.”

With the V&A a building site again -- architect Amanda Levete has designed a 35 million pound new wing -- there’s little chance of that happening.

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