I’m wondering what you think of London’s cultural significance in 2013.
If you make this interview just about London, it will be like a love letter in the end. I have a great affection for this city.
Ah, so I can go to the newspapers with that now!
Well, I’m not sure it’s a headline, but it is true. In many cities people talk about ‘they’ and ‘me.’ Here it is always ‘we.’ And I don’t think it’s only a linguistic approach. There’s a kind of common sense to Londoners and a sense of facing a common challenge in London itself. In a certain way, this city challenges you – intellectually and physically.
Would it be possible to mine some linguistic ore and think about the sense of legacy associated with the figures of Victoria and Albert.
Definitely, I think the talent and vision of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert has been re-discovered recently. The Hanoverian tercentenary in 2014 should help to raise awareness of their impact further – it marks 300 years since the Hanoverian dynasty, which Victoria was part of, succeeded to the throne in Britain.
How are they understood?
I think Victoria, in particular, is often misunderstood. She’s that screen mum, that old lady, mourning, black dress, prudish. But I was at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight recently and suddenly you realise Victoria and Albert were once a young couple. They had nine children. Normally you have to have a lot of fun to have nine children.
Albert came to London with the ideas of Schlegel and Fichte. He had this unusual theoretical understanding and suddenly the opportunity to put those new ideas into practice. The 1851 Great Exhibition and the V&A, which was established shortly afterwards on the proceeds of the Exhibition, were his initiatives – his ideas becoming reality. Concepts being transformed in a social context.
What was your experience of leading the Dresden State Art Collection?
I became Director-General in 2001 and saw it as my task to bring a group of institutions with a long and rich, but also troubled and wartorn, history into the 21st century. My first job as a museum director was also in Dresden, in 1991, just after the reunification of Germany.
That must have been a difficult time.
Yes, but a particularly interesting time too – if you start with a new political system, a new currency, then everything is new. You try to avoid mistakes that others have made before. I came to Dresden immediately after reunification. Before that, I was the co-curator of an exhibition on Bismarck at the German History Museum in Berlin. That was a rollercoaster because we made everything before reunification started and then suddenly we had unification inside and reunification outside. We were aware of the profound consequences of people misusing the Bismark motif.
You have called for the establishment of a stronger national network and an international strategy. And I was wondering if you could expand on that?
It’s a difficult topic and it takes a long time to explain. But in brief. There are a lot of museums in Europe – maybe even too many. Before we even think about founding more, let’s build strong ties between those that exist.
I’ve seen the Bowie exhibition. I’m wondering about your decision to go ahead with this when you have said in the past that museums are in danger of turning into a stage for celebrities. Is the David Bowie exhibition turning into a stage for celebrities, or is it a tangible postmodern utterance by the V&A?
The V&A was established as a museum for everyone and I want it to stay that way: popular, relevant and occupying common ground. But our exhibitions also need to stay thoughtful, rigorous and creative. Being popular doesn’t mean using celebrity as a magnet to attract people – that approach is a mistake for any museum. The David Bowie exhibition was a completely different thing; a phenomenon. I didn’t expect that at all. No one expected that. But it wasn’t about celebrity as such, it was about Bowie’s music and performances, his style and designs, his lyrics and his ability to inspire people. It was about someone who always managed to ride the zeitgeist and did it again, in a spectacular fashion, in 2013.
These next two questions are interlinked. The V&A has the Islamic Art collection and I notice that you have this relationship with Qatar. I wonder how important this kind of relationship is and which specific international relationships will be crucial in the future?
The V&A has been collecting Islamic art and design since the 1850s. There’s a natural continuity between that farsighted initiative and current displays and collaborative projects based around the collection, which continues to grow today. Our collaboration with the Qatar Museum Authority on the Pearls exhibition has been a great success.
The V&A’s collection is international and we have a great opportunity to engage with diverse communities in the UK and abroad. However, cultural diplomacy has to mean more than sending more objects around the globe. I think touring exhibitions were extremely important in the early ’90s or the late ’80s but we now have to discover and develop additional strategies for international collaboration, which may concentrate on long-term dialogue, research and knowledge exchange.
This leads me back almost to the beginning. Does London still have a crucial intellectual and creative pull?
Yes, I see London as a centre of gravity right now in the world. It’s cutting edge but it’s also balanced. Here you find real life alongside the extraordinary.
Martin Roth, Director of the V&A was interviewed by The Editor of The London Magazine, Steven O’Brien