Olympicopolis: Dr Roth wants V&A to think bigger than ever

Jul 21, 2014
Edie Lush

And how the new show, Disobedient Objects, will bring cobblestones and gas masks to London

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Enough of the virtual - it's time to bring this column back to the tangible with a trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum to chat with its German-born director, Martin Roth. Earlier this month the V&A launched its campaign to save the Wolsey Angels and this week sees the opening of another ground-breaking V&A show, Disobedient Objects.

Roth is the first non-Briton ever to have run the museum – and, for that matter, to head up any national British museum. I met him earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos and remembered most his passion for the role museums can play in challenging our ideas about the present - not just the past.

In a way he’s continuing the legacy of the V&A’s founder - and not just because Prince Albert famously hailed from Germany. Dr. Roth says that “from the beginning the V&A was the museum for everyone. It was the 'palace for the people' in the 1850s.

"The V&A was the first museum in the world to have a purpose-built café, which made it possible for people to stay for longer and to socialise as well as study. It was the first museum to have gas lights - so those who didn’t have the leisure to come during the day could come after hours.”

(An aside: the V&A’s first director, Henry Cole, hoped that "the evening opening of public museums might furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace" for working-class visitors. While that proved a little too optimistic, evening openings became so popular they’re now a feature of almost every major museum in the world.)

“I would like more debate in the V&A around objects,” says Roth. “And we need to show that creativity doesn’t come from the sky – there’s something about it that’s tough, that’s about hard work, long hours, passion and commitment.

"That’s why Alexander McQueen [the fashion designer, whose work will be celebrated in a major V&A exhibition in 2015] came here so often to study the archive collections. We’re always looking for more ways to ignite that passion for the creative process.”

There’s a brand new gallery at the V&A which encourages such debate. The Rapid Response Collecting gallery houses objects that define and shape our view of the present.

The ‘Liberator' - the world’s first 3D printed gun - made by Texan law student Cody Wilson is there, as are a pair of Primark cargo pants bought at the time of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in which 1,129 Bangladeshi workers died.

I was delighted to see a pair of Oculus Rift goggles and a series of Christian Louboutin shoes in five shades of ‘nude’ (because we’re not all the same colour nude, right?)

I’d read about all of these items before, but actually seeing them in person was both invigorating and magical. It put me firmly in the immediate. Dr. Roth says that there is something about being in the presence of objects that does that.

“Walter Benjamin used to talk about the aura of the object," says Roth. "When I was director of the Dresden State Museums I saw people coming from all over the world to look at the Sistine Madonna. A visitor once stopped me in the gallery and just said ‘Where is she?’ I knew exactly who he meant.

"We all know that painting and those two little angels, but there is something about seeing it in person that is inspiring, breath-taking and can be life-changing."

But what about the fact that the majority of the objects preserved by the V&A are reference collections, too fragile to go on long-term display? What about spreading their aura?

The V&A hopes to open another branch of the museum in east London, on part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, between the Olympic Stadium and Stratford station. It has been tagged 'Olympicopolis' in reference to ‘Albertopolis’, the South Kensington complex of museums and academic institutions of which the V&A is part.

While nothing is final, the V&A’s new space – and when Dr Roth says space, he means S P A C E - would be designed for collaboration with the likes of Sadler’s Wells, and to put on exhibitions on an even grander scale than last year’s blockbuster ‘David Bowie is’.

The added volume would also enable the V&A to expand its links with universities including UCL, which is to open a new campus in the Olympic Park, and offer more support for young designers and artists. It would be possible for visitors to access even more of the wonders of the collections, including much that is currently only available to view on appointment. It is all part of the V&A’s mission to bring Prince Albert’s goal of providing "life-long learning" for all into the 21st Century.

As I wandered out of the V&A, I passed the shrouded Disobedient Objects exhibit (opening 26 July). It will show objects that have been created by grassroots social movements as tools of social change - think giant inflatable cobblestones used during the general strike in Barcelona, a robot which sprays graffiti and gas masks made out of water bottles used by protesters in Turkey.

Here’s what Walter Benjamin wrote about auras: "If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.” While it isn’t hard to imagine being inspired by the natural world, it is a different thing entirely to be moved by an object. But, I think, no less inspiring.

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