Martin Roth on Brexit

September 19 2016

Image of Martin Roth on Brexit

Picture: Guardian

When Martin Roth resigned as director of the V&A earlier this month there was much speculation as to whether he had or had not left in response to the UK's Brexit vote. News reports said he had, but the chairman of the V&A said he hadn't.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's 'Front Row', however, Roth makes it fairly clear that he was leaving because of Brexit. He specifically cites the rise of various forms of nationalism across Europe, and notes that the growth of English nationalism makes it harder to be in charge of a museum like the V&A, which is all about seeing culture in its global, interconnected context. 

You may or may not agree with Roth. But what I find puzzling about the story is the sense that Roth had to resign before he could say any of these things. As he says in the interview, it would not be possible to speak out as director of a UK museum. 

But why not? Surely these days the role of museum director is in part that of an impresario, someone colourful who can inspire and intrigue, who can attract and handle the limelight, someone who has strong and passionate views. So why do we compel museum directors to take a vow of silence on anything vaguely interesting? Would Brexit voting visitors really boycott the V&A if Roth had said what he believes, and stayed in post? Or would government ministers be wary of feeling embarrassed if they were critcised by a director? The danger of having silent directors is that we end up with museums run by grey, charisma-free administrators. We've enough of those already.

Update - a reader writes:

You know quite well that the reason why Roth couldn't speak his mind is because he is a recently arrived German citizen and a criticism of UK nationalism by a recent arrival would be viewed very negatively by the British press especially given the growing nationalism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. He won't find his ancestral land more accommodating of multiculturalism in museums or elsewhere. Immigrants are more integrated in British society than in Europe.

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