Geraldine Bedell interviews Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Geraldine Bedell: The V&A is nationally and internationally important, so how does that affect its relationship with London?
Martin Roth: Could the V&A be somewhere else? No, it’s absolutely a London institution. I think of it as the global museum for a local community and the local museum for a global community. It’s made for everyone, and that was the idea from the start. It’s the perfect institution for London, a city that has always been a capital for a global community, and where there are a lot of ambitious people, a lot of industrious people, a lot of people who want to learn more and who use the V&A as an archive of ideas and an inspiration for the future. It has been a platform for interpretation – for William Morris, Jonathan Ive, Alexander McQueen – and it continues to inspire the many young people who come in today.
GB: The V&A is part of London’s first planned cultural quarter. What makes a great cultural quarter in the 21st century?
MR: The idea of having this South Kensington campus, conceived in the 1860s, is brilliant. Show me one other example around the world that has such a cluster of great institutions – the V&A, Imperial College, the Royal College of Art, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum… The original plan of Prince Albert – I am putting this too simply – was to have great research at Imperial College showcased in the Science Museum; international relations, especially India, showcased in the V&A; engineering in Scotland showcased in the V&A; amazing expeditions to the Amazon showcased in the Natural History Museum and so on – and that’s probably what did happen in the 19th century.
Today we are each so specialised, so strong in our own domains, it can’t work like that. Imperial College is a world of its own, a galaxy of its own. You can’t showcase what Imperial College is doing today. Having said that, I was invited to the World Economic Forum at Davos – I was on a panel – and I said unfortunately we don’t have very close links to Imperial College – and three hands went up: ‘We are from Imperial College and we work with you’!
So what I am saying is that if you look at it positively, we’re not showcasing each other any more – but we are contributing different ways of thinking. If you want to take a more negative view of what’s happened over time then you might say we sit more in silos than we originally did. They don’t always fit together.
GB: Is the Exhibition Road development an attempt to create a physical openness to your neighbouring institutions?
MR: A lot of my predecessors have wanted to do something with that Exhibition Road space. There are 28 million people walking along Exhibition Road each year – that’s the same amount that visit Venice. We need something that is made for the public, and so we’re going to have a courtyard in this part of London that is probably the most expensive land on the globe. We need something for people to enjoy: they can come in, relax, sit in the coffee shop, just enjoy themselves, and if they want to go to the V&A they can go to the underground space and see the exhibition. It’s both a V&A space and it’s also very attractive for people just sitting there: it’s a public space.
GB: What do you hope to do at Olympicopolis that you can’t do here?
MR: We can do everything here and I don’t want to change the way the V&A mother ship is; we just want it to be better. But – this is the only way I can explain it – if this is the glossy magazine, where everything takes a bit more time – exhibitions in the galleries in a very beautiful way – what will happen in east London will be more Huffington Post, more of an immediate reaction. Something happens outside and, with the help of our collection, we will respond. Just to give you one example: we have a beautiful collection from Syria – the V&A has worked with Damascus for 150 years – so, if V&A East existed already, not to be showing something from Syria right now would be wrong.
The basic idea for E20 or V&A East for me is synergies. It’s about working with other institutions – not always knowing exactly what that means or where it will take us, but having that very inspiring neighbourhood. We will have a big exhibition space and we are happy to share it with other institutions. Sadler’s Wells will be there, doing more cutting-edge forms of dance, and we have a lot of material unused in our theatre and performance collection. So we can do great things together. We will make these kinds of instant exhibitions, and we will work with practitioners – from east London and elsewhere. Here, we have a great artists-in-residence programme: there, it will be more about shared spaces.
GB: So it will be a museum with no permanent collection?
MR: Well, what is a permanent collection going to mean a few years from now? With new technologies, with the ability to create something new with visitors… I don’t believe that starting a new museum in a traditional and static way would be right. I mean, it needs a long-term perspective but it shouldn’t be static.
That said, we are intending to move all our objects in storage – 2.5m of them – from Blythe House in west London to a new location, hopefully also in east London, and show them there in a way that is totally accessible, as a kind of active archive, where you can come with your family or your teachers and explore.
GB: London’s population is growing…
MR: It depends on Brexit…
GB: Assuming it continues to grow, do we need new institutions or should we be investing in a different way, in other forms of production and consumption of culture?
MR: I am the wrong person to ask because I’m always going to defend what we’re doing. Let’s face it, London is the world capital, so it should also be the world capital of culture. Sure, it’s always good to have something new and inspiring – but I used to be President of the German Museums Association and I didn’t always make friends by saying we don’t always have to fund all the cutting-edge new ideas: let’s fund the traditional, national or international high-class institutions. That doesn’t mean that I don’t support all those new ideas. But I think it needs a while before you pump money into things.
I’m a huge believer in culture and commerce coming together on a very high-quality level. And I think London is brilliant for that because, unlike a lot of other European countries, there’s a very pragmatic view of culture and commerce. So I think we can do a lot to build institutions that bring both together. The London Design Festival is a good example: it’s business and the arts and creativity.
GB: Would you say that London’s major cultural institutions operate competitively or collaboratively?
MR: Competitively, and I think it’s rubbish. I would like to see more co-operation between institutions in London, because we can achieve so much more when we work together. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are fields where we should be highly competitive – exhibitions and research programmes – but then there are others where we definitely need to work together: international marketing, the digital world, the media. All these need much better co-operation with our partners.
GB: Is the Mayor relevant to you?
MR: We get a lot of support from local government, from the Mayor down to local councillors, and we work closely with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. But if I give you an honest answer, we are a national museum, not just a local or a London one, and it is the DCMS and the Treasury that are really important. But to have the greatest impact, to make more exciting things happen, to develop a shared long-term perspective, it’s definitely important to work with all the cultural shareholders in London and elsewhere, with the Mayor on top of it. It’s more fun and efficient if we work together. It’s not crucial, and it’s not always feasible, even, but it’s definitely more exciting: the outreach is better, and so on. It was really fun to work with Boris.
GB: What is the effect of digital technology on museums? Do buildings still matter, does location matter? It’s not hard to envisage that quite soon we will all be able to have access to all the V&A’s objects online.
MR: In Paris in 1900, a 3D cinema opened and the press declared it was the end of the museum. The end of the museum has been predicted many times since – yet we have more visitors than ever before. The museum world has a kind of hesitancy about new technology. There is a tendency to ask, ‘what does it mean for us?’ instead of using it immediately – and I’m a fan of using it immediately. The V&A has always been interested in technology; it is often intrinsic to design. We have to remember that a museum is not always the same institution: it’s constantly changing, with the society, with the environment, with the political situation. Digital technology is something for museums to embrace.
GB: When the V&A was founded it had a didactic aspect. How is your approach different for an era that sees the audience as active rather than passive?
MR: You are right: it was more didactic, but at the same time, they did a lot of brilliant things that required real empathy and thought about the audience. I am really a bit old-fashioned about this. There is something called the aura of an object – this was talked about by Walter Benjamin and is probably an overused concept – but the longer I work in the field, the more convinced I am that that is absolutely right. Why do people travel around the world to see a tiny handwritten paper by David Bowie? You can see it online. We have it online, you can read it; you can make it so big that you can see all the details. You could hardly read it in that showcase. But people queued up in front of the showcase to see it. So there is something about the real object. And our responsibility is the real stuff.
GB: Do you worry about lack of diversity in the museum audience?
MR: I’m not an art historian: my background is in sociology and anthropology and one of the reasons I like to work in museums is that I am interested in the social impact of education. It’s always more fun if you’re talking about the 1960s and you have Bob Dylan’s blue jeans (we don’t have Bob Dylan’s blue jeans!) But in the end, for me, the museum is an eye-opener for the public – so that’s the reason I worked in Dresden after reunification and why I do a lot with Russia, because I think we have to do something, otherwise there will be a problem. That’s the reason I went immediately to China, because I thought we have to open the eyes of both sides – I hope it works somehow. That’s the reason why I think we should do much more in the Middle East… don’t get me wrong, the museum is always the collection and research and so on, but there is absolutely an added value and the added value is always the social impact. At the beginning of my museum work, I thought everybody had to come to the museum – but I am really interested in football. Does everyone who goes to a football stadium have to go to a museum? Not everyone has to enjoy what I enjoy. I think we do quite a lot for the social impact of the cultural world.
GB: What do you make of the art market in London?
MR: The art market is important for London. But I am very critical because this is just a market. I often feel it has lost its meaning. It is not enough for art to be a commodity or an investment. We need to find more ways to add meaning and tell true quality from what is fashionable. The contemporary hype is just ridiculous. I don’t want to compete with this art market, I don’t want to collect these contemporary pieces.
GB: Do you see it as part of your role to foster pride in London?
MR: Sure, you can’t live in this city and not feel pride. No, honestly, I really mean it. If you aren’t born here or you come from a different country, then your identity is even more committed. You have to adjust and then the city’s really great to you. I like cars and I think I’m a very flexible person, open to new ideas, but you know, it took me a while to realise that driving is not a luxury here, walking is a luxury here – and now I really enjoy it, and my old Porsche is back in Germany.
But the moment I retire I will leave immediately. Not because I don’t like it – and I am definitely a person who can cope with the fact that I am not invited everywhere; that I have to sit in the second row and not the first row. It’s just the pace: heading out at 7.30 in the morning, running, running, running – and then you come back at 12 o’clock at night for four or five hours sleep.
I see a major problem, a really major problem that young people can’t afford to live here. We have people working here who have to commute an hour and a half, every morning, every evening. It’s not just the artists, but young graduates of all sorts, if they are not in banking. Sometimes, colleagues from the curatorial staff say that sooner or later it will be just people from affluent backgrounds or wealthy spouses doing their jobs. It’s no longer about quality, it’s a question of who can afford to live in London and do this kind of work.
GB: You mentioned Brexit earlier. Do you see it as a serious threat?
MR: I’m not a fan of Brussels, don’t get me wrong – but I was born 10 years after the war, in 1955, and you didn’t want to be German. Once you understood what had gone on and what your parents’ generation – I don’t say my parents – had done, it’s not where you wanted to be. We gave our parents and teachers a really hard time – and after that, your identity is always European. When I was young I had long blond hair and, when I was travelling, interrailing, or whatever, people would think I was Scandinavian and I would say ‘yes, I’m Scandinavian’. That’s one of the reasons I really appreciate being invited to work in London – I think it’s amazing to be the first non-British museum director; but to be German is extraordinary. I remember the British ambassador coming to Dresden after reunification and saying that what happened in Dresden is horrible, what happened in the Blitz and in Coventry is horrible, but we have now built an amazing house in Europe and we have to be really cautious that we don’t dismantle it.
GB: What is the thread that links V&A now to Prince Albert’s idea of the V&A?
MR: It’s my accent! We absolutely follow his legacy – I mean, it’s not only him, it’s Henry Cole and a lot of other people, working together. He wanted to make education open for everyone – and the idea of that restaurant down there, that you could offer a decent restaurant meal for people who don’t have servants in the kitchen at home, in a beautiful atmosphere, was very radical. It’s all about the beautiful atmosphere: a decent meal, not very expensive, and once your stomach is satisfied, you go and see more. It is a very great legacy and what we do is very close to it.