Martin Roth, former Director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) was a visionary museum leader. His untimely death, in Berlin this August at the age of 62, prompted a flood of appreciation for his leadership, his proud European outlook and his commitment to presenting blockbuster exhibitions of the very highest quality.
As the first German to head a UK museum, Roth made a significant impact during his five years at the V&A, including increasing visitor numbers. Under his leadership, the Museum staged the successful exhibitions Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, David Bowie Is, Disobedient Objects (also shown at MAAS, Powerhouse Museum) and Engineering the World: Ove Arup. Roth also oversaw the V&A’s presence at the Venice Biennale, the expansion of the museum to China, Scotland and east London, the founding of the museum research unit, the project to open the new Exhibition Road entrance, and the opening of restored galleries devoted to European arts and crafts of 1600-1815.
Roth left the V&A in 2016, not long after it was crowned Museum of the Year. (He was succeeded by the former Labour MP, journalist and historian, Dr Tristram Hunt, in January 2017.) Roth’s departure came at the same time as the European referendum, with Roth vocal in his condemnation of the vote to leave. He told German broadcaster Deutche Welle:
“For me, Europe is simply synonymous with peace. I didn’t want to be a German. I did not want to grow up in a country that had killed a huge part of its population. So for me, Europe always gave hope for a peaceful future, based on sharing, solidarity and tolerance. Dropping out always means creating cultural barriers – and that worries me.”
He returned to Germany after he left the V&A. He was appointed honorary president of the Institute for International Relations and worked on several projects opposing the drift toward nationalism and right-wing thought across Europe.
Roth was born in Stuttgart in 1955. He received his PhD from University of Tübingen in 1987, where his doctoral dissertation examined: “the political and historical context of museums and exhibitions in Germany between 1871 and 1945”, a period which included the Weimar and Nazi years.
Reflecting on this in 2016, he told the London Daily Telegraph that his academic work taught him that intellectuals could not simply bury their heads in the sand and ignore difficulty.
“Looking at that time you see how art and culture can be controlled for political purposes, which can happen very easily, without you realising it,” he said.
He held various roles at international museums including as a curator at the Deutsches Historsches Museum from 1989 to 2001; as a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles in 1992; as Director at the German Hygiene Museum, Germany’s first science museum, from 1991 to 2000; and as President of the German Museums Association from 1995 to 2003.
From 2001 – 11, Roth was Director General of the Dresden state art collections, overseeing 12 museums and galleries. He was succeeded in this role by Dr Hartwig Fischer, who eventually followed him to London and is now Director of the British Museum.
Although he enjoyed an international standing and was admired across the world, Roth was also held in great affection and respect by his colleagues at the V&A. In a tribute after his death, Tim Reeve, Deputy Director and CEO, V&A, wrote:
“I was lucky to see the more private side of this force of nature. More at ease in smaller groups, always ready for a walk and a long conversation in Hyde Park or an Espresso at Orsini, a text to remember a family event that you were almost certain he would not remember, a well-made and well-chosen toy for my son, always a chocolate Santa left mysteriously on the desk at Christmas, and his absolute insistence on walking out of the building with me at the start of a long trip or vacation, to say good bye properly. He was a big thinker, and a restless spirit, but above all he was a great person. There is so much we at the V&A have to thank Martin for…He left the V&A richer than he found it.”
Roth died from cancer which was diagnosed not long after he left the V&A. Announcing his death, Sigmar Gabriel, the German Foreign Minister described him as: “a cultural visionary and a true fighter for tolerance and openness to the world.”
Martin Roth is survived by his wife and three adult children.