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Martin Roth

We have an obligation to share collections abroad says V&A director

The V&A’s new, German-born director Martin Roth on what he learned in Dresden—and Beijing

London

Martin Roth took over as director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) last month. He joins a small but growing band of national museum directors from abroad. Born in Stuttgart in 1955, he brings to the V&A a track record of organising prestigious international loan exhibitions and overseeing major capital projects.

In his first interview, he told The Art Newspaper that he wants to make the V&A “more open to social questions and changes in society”, as well as going further to “open up” the museum.

Roth, who comes from Dresden State Art Collections, took over at the V&A on 1 September. On his third day, he gave us his initial impressions: “I was a bit scared when I came through the door. But as soon as I sat down, it seemed reassuringly like Dresden, with similar personalities and characters. Everyone in a museum plays their role, like on a stage.”

He has already visited the V&A’s Asian decorative art store and was amazed by what it contained. “We have an obligation to share this material with the source countries,” he said.

The new director has two immediate issues to tackle closer to home. There is a gap in the 2013 programme, because a major (but unannounced) exhibition has fallen through. This will give him an opportunity to stamp his mark on the programme, which is normally finalised three or four years in advance.

The greater challenge is fundraising for the Amanda Levete Architects-designed Exhibition Road extension, which will provide a new entrance and much-needed temporary exhibition galleries. Costs are estimated at £35m, of which £15m has been secured from a London-based supporter of the museum. This still leaves £20m to find before the extension’s projected opening in 2016.

The development is virtually all below ground, with a street-level piazza leading down to basement galleries. Although a strong supporter of the design, Roth admits to being slightly wary about having works of art below ground. He had to deal with the disastrous flooding of several of the Dresden state museums in 2002.

Roth, who has been involved in major building projects in Dresden, is only too aware of the importance of monitoring work. “You can start off with a great design, but I know quite how difficult it is to make a new building look like the design at the end,” he said.

Dealing with government funding will be a long-term challenge. Six months ago, Roth did not know what the initials DCMS meant (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), but he is learning fast. The V&A, like all UK national museums, has had its budget cut by 15%. Roth remains phlegmatic. “In the past two decades in Germany, I can’t think of a single year when I had no budget problems or the threat of cuts,” he explained.

Roth has set himself two main goals. The first is “to run the V&A in a great way, and support my colleagues”. The second is to “understand how Britain works, and explain and translate that for the rest of Europe, and vice versa”. In this sense, having a foreign director at the helm of a major UK museum should prove invigorating.

In Dresden, Roth was a great believer in sending his staff abroad to other institutions to discover how they did things. “Now it is me,” he said. Despite his initial impression about the similarities with Dresden, he admits the situation will soon seem more complicated: “You think you know everything, because at first sight it looks so familiar. But then you discover the details are different.”

Roth in Beijing: bringing Enlightenment, and facing criticism after Ai’s detention

Roth wants to press ahead with the V&A’s cultural links with China, despite the intense criticism that he faced in Dresden. Just the day before Ai Weiwei’s arrest on 3 April, Germany’s three leading museum groups (Berlin, Munich and Dresden) opened “The Art of the Enlightenment” at Beijing’s National Museum. The German media pilloried Roth, he believes quite unfairly, for his perceived support of the regime.

The V&A has already committed to playing a major role in the British Council-supported “China Now” programme next year. Along with the British Museum, it will be lending Chinese ceramics for a 2012 show at the National Museum in Beijing. The V&A is also sending “British Watercolours from the V&A 1750-1950” to the Shenzen Museum (June 2012) and “British Design 1948-2012” to the Shanghai Art Museum (autumn 2012). A V&A show on India’s royal court will go to Beijing’s Palace Museum in 2013. The V&A will borrow works from China for an exhibition of “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting” in 2014.

Roth intends to resist pressure to cut off cultural links because of human rights abuses, believing that museums should remain independent from governments: “I am a strong believer in soft diplomacy. In Germany, I worked together with the ministry of foreign affairs as director of an independent institution.”

Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000BC-AD 2010)” is due to open at the V&A on 15 October. It was organised before Roth’s appointment.

Biography

Born: in Stuttgart

Career: curator at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum (1989-91) before moving to Dresden. He was director of the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum there (1991-2000) and then director-general of the Dresden State Art Collections (2001-11), which runs 14 museums. Reopenings included the Türckische Cammer (Turkish Chamber) in 2009, and the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) and Albertinum in 2010. Last year, Roth also signed an agreement between Dresden’s museums and the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, to share exhibitions and expertise.