Martin Roth's Legacy


5 September 2016

Martin Roth, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), has stepped down after five years in the role. The first non-British individual to hold the position, his departure has been widely reported to have been triggered by the result of the EU referendum. According to the V&A’s official statement, Roth is to devote his time – perhaps pointedly – to “various international cultural consultancies,” while spending more time with his family in Berlin and Vancouver.

Born 1955 in Stuttgart, Roth originally pursued an academic career. His doctoral thesis looked at the history of museums during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. From 1989 to 2001 he was curator at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, and for much of that time he also directed the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden. Before joining the V&A in September 2011, Roth oversaw the Dresden State Art Collections, one of the oldest and largest publicly collections in the world.

Though Roth only held the reins at South Kensington for a half-decade, he presided over a period of enormous success for the museum. A series of blockbuster exhibitions – including 2013’s still-touring David Bowie Is and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the most visited show in the museum’s history – brought the museum to the sort of a wide audience that had often previously failed to attract.

No mere populist, however, Roth’s directorship also saw the museum shine a light on rather more esoteric topics, including Ove Arup’s engineering, Victorian colonial photography and early Soviet avant-garde theatre design. This summer, in recognition of its exhibitions and the reopening of its Europe 1600-1815 galleries, the V&A was judged Britain’s Museum of the Year – an award that has retrospectively become the capstone of Roth’s era.

Perhaps more significant than Roth’s exhibition programming, however, was his transformation of the V&A from the inside. In 2013, he appointed the journalist Kieran Long to head a newly created Design, Architecture and Digital Department. Long’s team has bolstered both the museum’s engagement with new media forms and its consideration of socially-motivated design – a concern demonstrated by 2015’s All of This Belongs To You, an exhibition and installation series that looked at the role of public institutions in contemporary life.

The array of forward-thinking projects inaugurated during Roth’s tenure is vast. Since 2014, the V&A has begun a policy of Rapid Response Collecting whereby objects are collected in reaction to major historical events. Earlier this year, Roth announced the creation of a new V&A Research Institute (VARI), devoted to discovering new multidisciplinary approaches to study and teaching. The £100,000 won from the Museum of the Year award was funnelled into the re-establishment of the Circulation Department, which until its closure in 1977 organised touring exhibitions of the museum’s collection to regional museums.

Roth leaves a V&A at a point of enormous physical expansion. The main South Kensington building is to gain a new entrance courtyard and new branches of the museum are to open in Dundee and Stratford’s Olympic Park, the latter focused on digital works. In 2017 the museum will begin a five-year partnership with the Shekou Design Museum in China, adding to a series of international collaborations with the likes of the Smithsonian and the Venice Biennale.

Given his devotion to transnational connectivity in the arts world, Roth’s hostility to the referendum result should come as no surprise. He has previously talked of his shame to be German in the light of the Second World War, and the appeal of an super-national European identity. Prior to the referendum result, Roth revealed his concerns to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, stating that “the thought that we could be ruining everything our parents’ generation achieved – a policy of peace, reconciliation and common thought – is quite a horrible perspective.”

Roth’s departure, although surprising, need not be a calamity. Given the widespread acclaim accorded to Roth’s V&A, it is likely that his legacy will be honoured. It is deeply worrying that even someone in Roth’s position feels unable to continue working in a post-EU Britain. If the director of the world’s largest applied arts and design museum chooses to leave, who is to say that European cultural workers in less lofty, globally-connected positions will not follow? And if Roth’s decision was partially motivated by new difficulties precipitated by the loss of EU funding, it could betoken stormy times ahead for Britain’s national museums.