Tête-à-tête with Martin Roth on museums in the 21st Century

Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was in India this week for the ‘Strategic Transformations: Museums In the 21st Century’ conference. We caught up with him to find out his thoughts on what is happening in museums today.

Martin, in your keynote address at the conference this week, you spoke about the relationship between museums and the evolution of global culture. Would you mind sharing your thoughts about this?

Museums have always engaged with world cultures, but in recent times there have been such immense changes in the political spheres, huge changes in global mobility and an explosion in communication channels, so we have new opportunities. The world has opened up so much in my own lifetime; people can travel so much more freely now and this exposes people to cultures of different countries and they can see the differences and similarities between cultures first hand. Exposure to different people’s perspectives creates an impetus to understand the world from a wider point of view and a long term perspective of our experiences. What happens in the world happens in the museum, so museums are fulfilling their roles in reflecting our societies and responding to our audiences. It is about keeping pace and staying relevant.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for museums today?

The challenges are always fluctuating for museums and it is part of our duty to roll with this. Challenges such as money and management will always be there, but today I think it is about how you cope and change your institutions according to completely different business models, management models and political interests. The opportunity for a museum, but also the difficulty, is that it is not one museum, a museum is like an open space that is constantly changing with demands coming from outside and political changes, but that is the great thing about a museum. A museum is not a factory sitting there always producing the same goods – it is a very open space for a very open society, but that means that the museum is constantly changing. To manage those changes is the mission and challenge for a museum.

And finally, what would be your expert advice for getting the best out of a visit to a museum?

1) Just enjoy it. We shouldn’t see museums as formal academic institutions, just places to enjoy.
2) Pick a few objects or rooms to see.
3) Don’t try to understand everything.
4) Don’t go on empty stomach.

Interviewed by Emer Coyle, British Council

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