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

The NMeM: three key contexts for the transfer design and our future direction

Museums are institutions that continuously exist in different temporal states. Every day we welcome visitors, run events and learning programmes for schools and families, and show films. Every year we show a programme of temporary exhibitions and deliver a series of film festivals. Every 5–10 years we open new ‘permanent galleries’, themselves designed for a lifespan of 10–20 years, and refurbish our public spaces, shop, café, cinemas. But, at the same time, we also maintain collections, many of them hundreds of years old that have extensive pre-museum biographies. It’s not coincidental that museum departments and activities tend to be aligned with these different time-spaces – learning and operational teams with the day-to-day, exhibitions departments with the 2–5 year programme, curators with the long-term collections management and gallery planning. Over time, and in stable disciplinary and institutional circumstances museums establish a rhythm to the activities and they get knitted together in an institutional culture where ideas flow between people and departments.

The National Media Museum is, however, not this museum. A relatively young institution[39], it is part of a larger group of museums with whom it is formally a single legal entity[40] and from where it drew its founding collections. While some of its functions are managed locally, others are administered centrally. Its collections, formally, are a single collection, albeit one distributed between seven[41] different geographical locations. Rather than thinking of the National Media Museum, or the wider Science Museum Group, as a single institution, it is more accurate to think of it as part of a network of different people, departments, locations, collections and activities.

Context 1: a longer history of collecting
The roots of the National Media Museum are in the Great Exhibition of 1851 which led to the establishment of the South Kensington Museum and, in 1909, the Science Museum. In this time the foundations of the collections that became part of the core of the National Media Museum were laid down: with the development of the photographic collections from 1882[42]; the cinematography collection from 1913[43]; and the television collection from the donation by John Logie Baird of his experimental apparatus to the Science Museum in 1926. These collections developed over time, and in 1983 some of them were sent to Bradford to form the basis of the new museum. Legally, the collection was not split; the collections remained as a single entity.[44]

It’s not, however, as simple as saying that all photography, cinematography and television collections were allocated and delivered to the new museum. It is clear from the catalogue records and the locations of the collections today that choices were made. Radio broadcast (in spite of the direct links to the development of television) and sound recording and reproduction technologies (in spite of its close relationship to cinema technologies) remained at the Science Museum. The new museum was focused on images, even where these images were experienced with audio accompaniment and even where the technological histories were closely interlinked, the image was the focus and the sound deemed entirely extraneous at the new museum. More curiously, within photography a process of disentangling different categories of photography took place. Scientific photography and imaging processes remained at the Science Museum. Medical imaging and photography, including X-rays, also remained at the Science Museum. It seems that far from creating a museum that covered the ‘art and science’[45] of photography, conscious decisions were taken to exclude scientific photography and scientific practitioners of photography from the new collections, and hence from the intellectual realm of the National Media Museum.[46] The National Museum of Photography was being established and science was not part of its thinking.

Figure 2

A black and white much magnified photograph from 1937 of a long range alpha particle

Long range alpha-particle of range 95 mm from Thorium C and C1, early twentieth century. This photograph, made by the physicist Lise Meitner, was donated to the Science Museum in 1937, and was not included in the collections that were brought to Bradford in 1983

Figure 3

A set of four colour photographs of cumulus cloud formations from 1887

Detached cumulus cloud formations taken at Kew Observatory in 1887. Book of cloud prints, two boxes of cloud negatives showing how cloud measurements were made, Kew scale, 1888. This book of meteorological photographs was gifted to the Science Museum in 1957, and was not included in the collections that were brought to Bradford in 1983

Figure 4

A black and white photograph from 1917 of the sun showing sunspots on the surface

Sunspots, 12 August 1917. This solar photograph, in white light, shows the whole disc of the Sun on 12 August 1917. Taken using the 60-Foot Tower Telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in California, United States, it shows a large group of sunspots lying close to the Sun’s equator. This photograph was gifted to the Science Museum in 1921, and was not included in the collections that were brought to Bradford in 1983

Figure 5

Mounted plantinotype print from 1907 showing an X-ray picture of Nautilus Pompelnes

Mounted plantinotype print showing an X-ray picture of Nautilus Pompilius, 1907. One of a set of nine plantinotype prints showing X-ray pictures of various molluscal shells, made in 1907 by George H Rodman. In the same year they were purchased by the Science Museum, but were not included in the collections that were brought to Bradford in 1983

But what was it thinking? A comment piece published in the British Journal of Photography at the time expressed serious concerns that there was not enough distinction between the collecting approaches of the new museum and that of the V&A: ‘if…Bradford is going to set out to acquire a permanent collection of historic photography as an end in itself, triplicating the V&A and RPS collections, then taxpayers will have every right to object’.[47] Furthermore, in the concluding paragraph, the writer calls for ‘clarity’ of collecting focus for each museum, ‘no one is going to deny Bradford must house or negotiate to have access to a wide range of photographic and film images but it is pointless for it to compete in the over-priced art market’. More strikingly, he goes on the finish with a call for the Museum to confidently show replicas of original photographs rather than wrangling for historic collections: ‘Why make an elitist gambit from a process invented to provide unlimited copies for all to enjoy? All concerned should keep their eye on the ball – serving the public – not on building personal empires.’

The problem with claiming to be the definitive national museum of something as diverse and complex as photography is that there are simply so many photographs, so many cameras, so many associated technologies of reproduction and dissemination, so many different applications of those technologies. In an effort to assert itself, the Museum collected, in my view, without discrimination in the early years. It acquired the Kodak Museum collection, the Ricketts collection, the Focal Press collection, the Daily Herald picture library (of over three million prints), and archives of work by Arthur Nurnberg, Zoltan Glass, Tony Ray-Jones and Lewis Morley. Proactive, thoughtful collecting is part of a healthy museum practice; this was not thoughtful, considered collecting. An internal document from 2013 exemplifies the expansive nature of the collecting ethos, referring to ‘…a comprehensive collection of the medium’s various cultural histories’.[48] Except, again, some cultural histories were being excluded. In 1985 photography Tony Walker, proprietor of the commercial Belle Vue Studio on Manningham Lane in Bradford, that had been one of the city’s main photographic studios between 1926 and 1975, offered the material from the studio to the National Media Museum. This archive of thousands of glass negatives showed the work of a typical commercial photography studio throughout the twentieth century, and charted the changes in Bradford’s population as it accommodated migrants from many parts of the world, including significant numbers of people from Pakistan and the Caribbean. This archive was, however, rejected on the remarkable grounds that it was of local, and not national importance, even though other Yorkshire photographs were acquired (including a long-running series of commissions in the city – the Bradford Fellowship series), as well as other commercial and studio photography. Fortunately the archive found its way to Bradford Museums and Galleries where it has become one of their most celebrated photographic collections.[49] Clearly, subjective curatorial decisions were at play here, shaping what was deemed suitable for the national collection, and categorising other material as inconsistent with the authorised version of photographic history.

Figure 6

Black and white photograph of a family photographed at Belle Vue Studio Bradford in 1950

Family photographed at Belle Vue Studio, Bradford, 1950. The Belle Vue Studio collection of 17,000 glass negatives is an extraordinary photographic record of the changing demographics of Bradford in the twentieth century. The collection was offered to, but not collected by, the National Media Museum in 1985

Context 2: A responsible approach to collecting
The acquisition of the RPS collection in 2002 is a key moment in the Museum’s story. In the much-quoted words of Michael G Wilson[50] it was the moment at which the Museum collections became ‘world class’.[51] This collection of over 250,000 photographic images, items of equipment, books and archival materials was bought by NMeM after the RPS board had come to the conclusion that it could no longer afford to maintain it properly alongside the other activities of the Society.[52] As well as funding for the purchase itself, the Museum received further funding for cataloguing and storage facilities in the Museum. The Museum began exhibiting the collection in its temporary exhibition programme immediately, with the 2003 exhibition Unknown Pleasures: Unwrapping the RPS Collection.

A change in Museum leadership in 2005, and the renaming in 2006, began a new phase for the Museum’s collections. From a defined collecting remit focused on photography, film and television, the Museum signalled the intention to begin a radical new expansionist phase ‘colonising new media territories’, to quote one internal document from the time. Comprehensive lists of topics and areas were drawn up[53], and in 2010 the Museum’s collecting policy statement declared that ‘…the NMeM’s potential to attract scholars, donors, vendors or patrons must suggest that their status is that of the primary national Collection of each of the media it represents’ (my italics). Generously, it also stated that ‘…other institutions may have exemplary holdings in more focused aspects of the museums…’[54] but that the primary national collection was that of NMeM. This attitude to other collecting institutions included the other museums in the Science Museum Group, with NMeM effectively acting as a silo and actively planning to duplicate collections: a section of the 2010 policy details the intention to collect Radio Broadcast equipment and technology, even though this area was already very well covered by the communications collections held at the Science Museum.

A further change in leadership in 2012 began a process of moving away from this expansionist position. A restructuring of the curatorial team that year led to a refocus on the three core areas of photography, film and television, which, even after six years of the aspiration to collect more widely had not led to the development of significant collections in any other areas. At the same time, the Science Museum group began a review of its storage facilities, partly to consolidate a number of stores in a single location to reduce costs, but also in anticipation that it would have to move out of the West London Blythe House stores. It was in this context of reduced funding, the need to create sustainable collections that supported the Museum’s strategy, that the RPS collection and others were identified as potentials for transfer to other institutions. Indeed, in 2015 the Museum transferred a collection of TV adverts to the BFI[55], and it is possible that the Museum may consider other transfers to appropriate institutions in due course.

As the 2016 debate played out in public, two aspects of this wider context of the collection were mobilised; the timeline and the supposed comprehensive nature of the collections. A selective timeline was deployed; reference the establishment of the Museum and reference to the name change in 2006[56] – because they are the touchstones for the photography community. Some made the point that the Museum had acquired the RPS collection in 2002.[57] The British Journal of Photography article by Paul Womble[58] charts the course in more detail. He writes that ‘it should be remembered that the Royal Photographic Society Collection has been on the road for some years’, and rightly traces the institutional formations back to the South Kensington Museum. But the idea that the collection was a perfect amalgam of art and science and every aspect of photography was mobilised time and again.[59]

To return to Merriman – collections are not perfectly formed things, but are the imperfect creation of generations of collectors, administrators and curators, partial, incomplete, highly subjective. It is right that we do not treat them as ‘treasures’ to be venerated, but as things to be used and actively shaped and managed. As circumstances change, as institutional formations evolve and develop, so must collections.

Context 3: Bradford
The final context that I want to explore is that of our city, Bradford. Since 1983 Bradford has not become, as the city planners had hoped at the time, a tourist destination. Indeed, the impacts of deindustrialisation, evident before 1983, have been compounded by other events that, cumulatively, have made the city, however unfair this characterisation is, a byword in media discourse and to some extent in the public’s imagination, for poverty, social and ethnic segregation and discord. Recent regeneration initiatives are changing this perception, but the city continues to face real challenges in education and economic development.

The Museum contributes in the order of £20m to the local economy each year, but the city is far more than the Museum. It is a large, complex city and wider metropolitan district, with its own challenges, histories and place in the national imagination. Since the Museum opened in Bradford in 1983, a decision[60] made more by luck and happenstance than cold, hard, strategic planning, it has suffered a series of events that have contributed to a general public image that is extremely (and not always fairly[61]) negative. The Bradford City football stadium fire in 1985; the Ray Honeyford affair[62]; the reporting of events relating to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses[63]; civil disturbances in 2001; and the lengthy delay between demolition in 2004 and the start of construction in 2013 of the Broadway shopping centre that ‘left a hole in our city centre’[64]. The cumulative effect of these widely reported events have led to a situation where Bradford has become lazy journalistic shorthand for poverty, racial segregation, and fears of radicalisation.[65] Sean McLoughlin from Leeds University has written that Bradford has become a ‘bad news place’, associated with its well-established South Asian communities who are often framed as ‘problem’ and ‘suspect’ citizens due to their connections to people, places, faiths, cultures and histories elsewhere (McLoughlin, 2014a:21).

In all of the discussion around the ‘National’ questions of photographic and cultural heritage in relation to the RPS transfer, this local context has been reduced to a pair of simplistic rhetorical points: the contended hypocrisy of a government that was encouraging a ‘northern powerhouse’ at the same time as underfunding its cultural institutions; and the decline of Bradford, which plays freely with the idea of the city as a ‘bad news place’. In this version, Bradford is a place always at deficit: enhanced by the opportunity to host ‘national’ cultural assets and reduced by their removal. That which is valuable (funding, collections, cultural capital) is implicitly always from elsewhere, not from the city itself but bestowed on it by benevolent external actors. Interestingly, there were no appeals to retaining the RPS collection on the basis that some of the photographs were made in Yorkshire, or made by people from Yorkshire[66], because, perhaps, this would undermine the rhetorical usefulness of Bradford as a place of deficit and loss.

Often, when the Museum has been reported or commented on in the specialist press, there has been a tendency to conflate the Museum and the city. ‘Bradford’[67] comes to stand in for institution, locale and, in 2016, the decision to transfer. This may be shorthand, but its reveals that, for the writers, Bradford means the National Media Museum, and, to a certain extent and in the context in which these articles are published, the decision on the RPS collection. And, as noted above, the word itself has already come to stand in for a range of negative associations, so it is not necessary to make reference to the city’s diversity, or its poverty or its challenges around any number of public policy areas because that is already present in the word ‘Bradford’. At the same time it erases the city itself, a place of culture and creativity – and while we seek to play a crucial role in the city, the Museum and the RPS collection are far from being the only good things Bradford has going for it. This shorthand is only possible to make if it is a place to which you have never actually been or, if you have, only to visit the Museum. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170710/004