The new head of one of the coolest museums in the world, Martin Roth is determined that the V&A will keep changing to retain its reputation. More of an evolution than anything too radical, but if he gets his way retrospectives will be a thing of the past, and the museum’s management will become more creative, he tells Jamie Mitchell
Martin Roth, the German-born academic who took over as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum last year, is showing me round his office, which is almost a miniature gallery in itself and contains a surprisingly diverse collection of objects from the museum's permanent collection. Coffee in hand, he points out an aluminium 'extruded' bench by Thomas Heatherwick, the British designer-of-the-moment whose work featured in a major show at the V&A last year, an original Eames rocking chair and Jamie Reid's cover artwork for the Sex Pistols' first record, the double A-sided single Silly Thing/Who Killed Bambi? from 1979.
While Roth is no design historian he clearly has a love of design, and his pride at being in charge of the V&A's unparalleled collection is palpable. 'It's amazing to be in charge of a museum that has in its collection objects as diverse as the Gloucester candlestick [an elaborately decorated gilt-bronze piece dating from the 12th century] and the first record by the Sex Pistols,' he says.
Formerly director general of the Dresden State Art Collections, Roth has come to the V&A at a good time. Taking charge in September 2011, he replaced Mark Jones, whose decade-long tenure has left the institution in excellent health. Between April 2011 and the end of March this year, the V&A recorded 3.3 million visits, more than at any other time in its 155-year history, and it is busy preparing for more. An ambitious programme of renovation and expansion, called Future Plan and started a decade ago, has already seen the completion of the museum's British galleries, the opening of its medieval galleries and, in December, a new gallery devoted to furniture.
So far Future Plan has involved some 50 architecture, design and engineering practices, including Amanda Levete Architects, which has designed a new underground gallery due to open in 2016, and NORD Architecture, which designed the new furniture gallery.
Recent design exhibitions focusing on postmodernism, the work of Thomas Heatherwick and the 'power of making' have seen visitors flock to the V&A's main site in South Kensington. Would Roth say that he has large shoes to fill? 'Mark's success with the V&A actually encouraged me to take on the role of director,' he replies. 'It's a welcome challenge to take on a successful institution and bring a new perspective to it.' Roth adds: 'It feels like I started yesterday and, at the same time, I feel like I've been here for ages. I feel like I haven't stopped moving, running, talking, writing - the speed, the pace of London is completely different from other cities.'
While record visitor numbers are great news, the V&A only charges admission fees for some exhibitions and receives 60 per cent of its funding from the Government, and that funding was cut by 15 per cent in 2010. Roth is philosophical: 'I can't remember one year in my career when there wasn't a budget cut,' but he's also adamant that institutions such as the V&A should remain in public hands. 'I don't want to have the American system, in the UK or in the rest of Europe, where everything is related to private profit and private interests. I think that's extremely risky,' he says. 'The government is you; the bank is not you. That's what makes civil society so important.'
Born near Stuttgart in 1955, Roth says he came from a modest family and that working as the director of a museum was never something he expected. 'For me working always meant doing something with my hands, so I saw culture and the arts as a luxury,' he says. Nevertheless he excelled academically, graduating with a degree in sociology from Eberhard Karls University Tuebingen and a PhD in the political and historical background of German museums and exhibitions 1871-1945.
Roth began his career in museums as a curator of the German Historical Museum, and after the reunification of Germany worked in New York and Paris before returning to Germany to run the German Hygiene-Museum in Dresden from 1991 until 2000. He became director general of the Dresden State Art Collections in 2001.
Roth admits to being a fan of design rather than an authority on it, but he is clear about why design is important to the V&A and the role collecting and exhibiting design plays in understanding society. 'I'm more knowledgeable about architecture and architectural history, but if you talk about recreating and explaining history then it's important,' he says.
'You choose the major objects of the time, the significant objects, and use those as an example, or you use architecture and products of a certain type and time. I think that with my interest in society, and sociology, I was always really close to the idea that the products are significant and tell stories - they relate the narrative of a society.'
Earlier this year Roth told Time Out magazine: 'I don't want the V&A getting sleepy because it is such a cool institution'. How is he going to make sure that the museum stays cool and relevant to a rapidly changing world?
'I think the V&A needs some changes: not radical changes, but more like an evolution,' he says. 'We need to change the management - I don't mean the people, but the structure. I don't want to give our people rules: what you have to do tomorrow or the day after, then you come back to see me. It's more like, I want to have your knowledge. I want to have your expertise. How you do it and when you do it, I don't care.
'The V&A right now is more like committees and meetings and minutes. That doesn't mean that I want chaos - far from it - but if we do creative exhibitions here then we also have to have a creative management.'
Controversially, one of the first things Roth did at the V&A after taking charge was to replace the museum's seven-strong creative team with three specialist curators, one each for digital design, architecture and product design. 'I think that makes a statement,' says Roth. Indeed Roth points out that staging an exhibition on the work of a young of-the-moment designer like Thomas Heatherwick, rather than a retrospective of a more established designer, shows that the V&A is committed to being at the vanguard of design culture.
'I don't want to do retrospectives at all,' he says. 'Even if we work with someone established like Zaha Hadid then it wouldn't be a retrospective. We'd have to talk about what her work means today. The V&A is a museum, yes, but I think it also has to be a stage.'
This article was first published in fx Magazine.