Go back to article: Contexts for photography collections at the National Media Museum

The arguments mobilised against the transfer

Reflecting on the events of 2016, it seems to me that in our public statement about the transfer the Museum wandered, perhaps naively, across a series of powerful crosscutting narratives that made the rationale offered difficult to understand or accept. These can be summarised as follows: the idea of a ‘national museum of photography’; the art/science problematic; and the London versus the North dynamic. On each of these points our attempts to offer explanations that complicated or challenged the dominant narrative were unsuccessful in public forums, even if in private at least some of our critics could be persuaded to respect our decision. This is in large part because these powerful narratives operated as shortcuts to longer and larger political debates about inequalities and resources. At the same time, as I will demonstrate in the second section, these narratives while operating as apparently ‘common sense’ also have the effect of occluding and reinforcing other, equally problematic, power dynamics.

Criticism of the Museum emanated from a range of different sources over the course of 2016, and I have drawn from a number of these including an open letter signed by 88 former members of staff and high-profile photographers published in the Observer newspaper on 6 March and an interview given by former Museum Director Colin Ford on the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row on 10 March. Other comments have been drawn from newspaper articles, blog posts, social media posts and comments beneath the line on official statements made by the Museum in February and March.

Narrative 1: ‘the end of the National Museum of Photography’
There was a powerfully made argument that the transfer of the RPS collection represented the end of the comprehensive ‘National Museum of Photography’. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row Colin Ford, the founding Director of the Museum, said:

It seems to me that every nation should have a national museum of photography, it’s such an important medium, and one of the press releases that first came out with this story said that there will be no national museum of photography – which is appalling.[8]

Eamon McCabe, photographer and formerly picture editor at the Guardian recounted the circumstances that led the Museum to change its name in 2006:

I wrote to tell the new director what I thought of the change. “Don’t worry,” he replied. “We’ll have a chair in photography.” “A chair!” I said. “We used to have a whole museum.”

Commenters beneath Jo Quinton-Tulloch’s blog post of 4 February explicitly called for a national museum of photography:

We should be reinstating the National Museum of Photography in Bradford – with a photography specialist heading it up.[9]

Indeed, the idea that the National Media Museum was the National Museum of Photography was actively promoted by the Museum up to 2016, with reference on the website to ‘The National Photography Collection’, and its 2010 Collecting Policy Statement claimed that:

these collections reflect [the Museum’s] remit as the primary National resource in its subject areas.[10]

The idea that we were the ‘National Museum of Photography’ was a fiction – marketing language to assert the collection’s significance, not to be taken literally. Many other nationally designated archives and museums in the UK hold highly significant photography collections: Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Maritime Museum, the National Archives, the British Library, National Museums Northern Ireland, National Museums Wales, National Museums Scotland and, of course, the V&A, all have significant collections of photography, and many more non-national museums also have important holdings. As I had taken it to be incontrovertible fact that we have in this country a distributed national collection of photography, it seemed to me that the desire to create a ‘National Museum of Photography’ was less about the needs of preserving photographic heritage, and more about making a claim for the status of photography as a distinct form of cultural production – ‘the ultimate democratic medium, the most popular art form’.[11] Odd how we never hear the same about textiles or costume, odd how we never hear the same about sculpture or watercolour painting. If we think about the benefits of a distributed national collection in terms other than status then we can see that the great benefit of a distributed anything is its resilience, its flexibility, its ability to adapt, change, reinvent itself. To take this incredibly rich heritage, to attempt to institutionalise into a ‘National Museum of…’ seems to be very much a nineteenth century solution for a medium that is profoundly part of our twenty-first century lives.

Yet, looking back, I had not fully appreciated before 2016 the work that this idea was doing, or how important it was to so many people. Photographers who looked to the idea of the Museum as a validation of their status and work were upset that we were apparently downgrading its importance and, by implication, theirs. People in Bradford who saw the Museum as a validation of the city’s cultural prestige were equally upset that it marked an apparent downgrading of its status, and therefore of the city itself. This traditional conception of the museum as an institution of treasures and experts has great public resonance. And yet this idea of museums is a fiction and a dangerous one: all collections are partial and imperfect; all knowledge and expertise is subjective and limited. Museums attract great public affection, but I wonder whether that is based on a misperception of museums not matched by the operational realities and one that cannot usefully persist into the twenty-first century.

Narrative 2: Reinforcing a divide between art and science
The other major claim was that in transferring the RPS Collection the Museum was establishing a divide between ‘art’ and ‘science’ in photography. The Museum has consistently claimed that the RPS collection ‘…can be broadly defined as “art photography”’ and that its transfer allows the Museum to focus on its core purpose as an institution of science and technology.[12] The Observer letter of 6 March clearly asserts that:

the present move to separate the interdependent aspects of the art and science of photography reverses prevailing worldwide practice, and takes the study of photo history in Britain back several decades.

On Front Row, Colin Ford elaborated on this by claiming that the Museum had been established to avoid this distinction:

“In my day, and for some years after I left, on the front door of the Museum it said this is a museum about the art and science of photography. And our aim, it didn’t always work, but our aim was you never showed a photograph without showing the sort of technology that produced it; you didn’t show a camera if you didn’t show the sort of pictures that it took – because they’re inextricably entwined.”

Some took a slightly different approach, asserting the importance of arts over science and technology:

It’s not scientists that produce the next blockbuster or multi million pound game. It’s people with an aesthetic. That’s what film, photography and digital imagery is all about. The technology is just a tool, its [sic] story telling aesthetics, meaning and emotion that takes that to global success. That’s art by any other name, or at least craft which is what photographers generally describe their activities as. Not Science.[13]

Others were more direct:

Can we talk about how fucking AWFUL it is that the National Media Museum is being turned into a science museum???[14]

And

#nationalmediamuseum should be about much more than ScienceTechnologyEngineeringMedicine. What about people,stories,imagination? [sic][15]

On reflection, we ought to have been more careful in our approach to these ideas, given the institutional and cultural histories, not to say the deeply held convictions of those committed to art and to science that they are each under-resourced and under-appreciated compared with the other.[16] As I will explore later in this paper, a distinction between photography made by artists, and photography in other contexts, is one that exists in the institutional divides between the Science Museum, the V&A, Tate, and any number of other museums that hold photography. It is the National Media Museum’s original sin that when we opened as the NMFPT in 1983 that we had failed to adequately resolve the distinction between collecting areas with the V&A. In the years that followed its opening the Museum did set out to acquire a collection of historic photographs, in direct competition with the V&A. We do have copies of, for example, the same images by Julia Margaret Cameron that are also held in not only the V&A but also the National Portrait Gallery. Furthermore, as I will explore further below, the Museum deliberately excluded scientific photography, and commercial Bradford photography from its ‘national photography collection’, undermining its claim to be a comprehensive collection of all aspects of photographic culture.

However, it is clear that in 2016 we failed to adequately give form to the alternative approach that we were advocating – we were clear about what we were against (art photography), but we were vague about what we were for. In this new direction for our photographic collections we plan to integrate all the many and various categories, meanings and statuses of photographs, and the lens of science and photography is central to this. Critically, this approach will focus on non-canonical photographs and photographers; photography that operates in spaces that have been neglected by the processes of institutionalising and mainstreaming photographic histories exemplified by the RPS collection.

Figure 1

Colour photograph of a father and two children looking at Kodak cameras at the National Museum of Photography Film and Television

Visitors at the Kodak Gallery of the NMPFT, Bradford, c.1990s. “…our aim was you never showed a photograph without showing the sort of technology that produced it; you didn’t show a camera if you didn’t show the sort of pictures that it took…” Colin Ford, 2016

Narrative 3: The North-South Divide
And finally, the most powerful of all narratives, the inequities of London compared with the regions, and specifically with the north of England. As Brighton-based art-historian Francis Hodgson put it:

The outrage has centred on the impoverishment of Bradford and the North of England in favour of a metropolitan cultural holding already rich in photography.[17]

The open letter in the Observer of 6 March indicated that the move was an apparent contradiction of the then government’s publicly stated ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policy:

Moving most of the museum’s photography collection away from Yorkshire goes against government policy when the museum was opened – to put such facilities outside London – and against the present government’s claimed ‘northern powerhouse’ strategy.[18]

Although for Colin Ford himself, the location of the Museum was actually of little importance compared with the need for a single comprehensive National Museum of Photography:

“I’m actually much more passionate about the fact that there should be a national museum of photography wherever…”[19]

Interestingly two of these three narratives came together in a strong thread of comment on social media that claimed the move was motivated by a ‘patronising’ connecting of the associations of the North of England with industrial heritage and the Museum’s new focus on science and technology:

And as others have noted, the basic assumption of those in London…is that the north can be allowed a National Museum of Pistons or some other nod to the industrial past, but that’s yer lot. Sheer cultural Gradgrindery.[20]

And:

It’s nice to see that SMG believes that once you get north of Liverpool that museums dedicated to science, trains, science and trains respectively helps the whole country’s access to the arts. I thought that we’d got past that ‘up there for the industrialists, down here for the aesthetes’ attitude about 200 years ago but apparently not.[21]

I would not dispute that there are inequalities on a number of different economic and social measures between London and the South East and the North of England, and specific differences in funding for cultural institutions. The 2013 report Rebalancing Cultural Capital rightly identified that not only does London take the lion’s share of cultural spending in the UK, but that cultural spending decisions are also centralised in a way that is not the case in other comparator countries.[22] The NMeM Advisory Board and Board of Trustees were very conscious that they were making a decision that could be characterised as further evidence of this inequity. However, the public discussion last year tended to ignore or gloss over two significant aspects of the problem. Firstly, there was little discussion of the fact that the removal of direct subsidy from central government had reinforced this trend, as it’s easier to raise money from non-public sources at the heart of the international art market and the engine room of economic growth. Like the failure to mobilise an anti-austerity argument, critics of the transfer decision seemed to be in denial about the economic facts, addressing themselves to a symptom but ignoring the systemic economic causes. Secondly, while it was often asserted that the collection ought to be located in the north, in fact under the NMeM’s care the RPS collection was actually held in three separate locations: at the Museum in Bradford; at the Science Museum’s storage facility at Wroughton in Wiltshire; and at the BFI’s storage facility at Gaydon in Warwickshire, where there are specialist facilities for storing nitrate film. Furthermore, the physical location of a collection is a zero-sum game – for it to be somewhere, it must necessarily not be everywhere else. I would argue that it’s less important where collections are held than they are invested in, made available, catalogued and digitised – activities that the V&A can do in London partly because they are able to draw on private funding available from being in the cultural capital of the UK.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170710/001