Go back to article: Location, location: a polemic on photographs and institutional practices

Location, location

Figure 1

Colour photograph showing shelves of boxes containing photographs


The status of photographs in museums is receiving increased attention. This is exemplified by the debate over the transfer of the Royal Photographic Society collection held at the SMG’s National Science and Media Museum to the V&A (see Terwey, this issue), and the implications for photographs of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) focus at the National Science and Media Museum. So it seems to useful moment to think about the terms under which photographs exist in museums collections. What are they doing there?

Behind this is a much wider question: how institutions make objects one kind of thing or another, how location translates into category and the extent to which categories might be sustained or challenged over time. It is a museological commonplace now that institutions create certain ways of seeing that make, translate and consolidate objects as certain kinds of things – ‘the museum effect’ (see, for instance, Alpers, 1991; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998). As art historian Svetlana Alpers stated: ‘everything in a museum is put under the pressure of a way of seeing’. This establishes the parameters of interest and quality of attention given (Alpers, 1991, p 29). Institutions are, as Gillian Rose has put it ‘groups of statements which structure the way a thing is thought’ (Rose, 2001, p 136). Similarly Ludmilla Jordanova has noted ‘disciplines have their own habits of mind’ that do not necessarily translate (Jordanova, 2011, p 1468). Photographs, categorised as either aesthetic productions or informational ‘bits of knowledge’, can be seen as disciplinary roadways that ‘facilitate the travelling of facts, but at the same time, like rails, they may also limit the range and possibilities for travel’ (Morgan, 2011, p 31). Thus a collection/an object is placed within disciplinary landscapes that are constituted through a series of assumptions. These are expressed at macro-levels through the foci of institutions and their public ‘branding’. At a micro-level these assumptions frame the language of cataloguing and description, the ordering of information within records, the visual and textual languages of exhibition and so on. Thus, where and how photographs are encountered matters. Different institutions constitute different thought-landscapes which both enable or hamper research.

This is particularly pertinent for photographs, which have largely been overlooked in debates of ‘museum effect’, because there is a massive confusion about what kinds of objects photographs are in museums: are they art or science, social or cultural, functional or aesthetic; how do these fields and purposes overlap? What is deemed worthy of collection and what is not? What is thus worthy of research and what is not? Even the kind of photographic object deemed important or collectable is dependent on categories, a point that will resonate through my account. Is the fine art print more important than its negative? And what of lantern slides, postcards, transparencies or stereocards? What about photographs created in the course of museums practices, which are of course themselves historically located?

Different kinds of institutions, of course, have different sets of boundaries between ‘collections’ and what I have termed ‘non-collections’ (Edwards, 2016: see blog, Fotomuseum, Winterthur) – that is, material which might be of historical, informational, or indeed aesthetic significance, but none the less is outside the patterned boundaries of ‘collecting’. Non-collections, such as they are acknowledged at all, exist in a hierarchical relationship and are sequestrated to the margins of curatorial practice and kept, that is, located, as ‘archives’, assemblages of ranges of material – institutional histories, photographs or film for instance. These are seen, in many museums, as servicing ‘real’ collections, and understood as merely supporting, or providing information about, for instance, how ethnographic objects were worn, or the details of archaeological sites. They are not understood as historically important in their own right as photographs, as records and aesthetic statements about the thought-landscapes of the past. What is significant again is the way in which the relationship between location, category and assumed value is so clearly articulated.

It is well established, as Michel Foucault has famously argued, that classification, here expressed as categories, is an epistemological apparatus that constitute political, social and moral discourses. Categories allow a thing, here a photograph, ‘to pass over in its entirety into the discourse that receives it’ (Foucault, 1974, p 135). Categories have ideological origins, and consequences become naturalised within institutional practices and agendas and resonate through them long after their apparent demise. Likewise language, in which collections are wrapped, expands or controls the ranges of possible experiences within institutions. Words of description, representation, and interpretation thus control the content of knowledge to be transmitted within museums at all levels, from researcher to casual visitor. As philosopher Jacques Derrida has argued, text communicates between absent authors and unknown audiences ‘spewing out its manifold significations, connotations and implications’ (quoted in Thompson, 2004, p 10). While the instability of the text remains and it is well-recognised that users bring their own agendas to the practices of viewing within museums, at the same time institutions shape and manage the kinds of knowledge which align with their thought-landscapes – what is ‘collection’, what is ‘non-collection’ is a statement about what is privileged and desirable. Such processes create central naturalised realities which mediate understandings, reproducing disciplinary landscapes in order to create a stability of meaning.

These processes, therefore, come to carry an authority and credibility. An object, here a photograph, is made believable as one sort of thing or another through the whole range of museum practices. For instance, museum commonplaces such as registers or catalogues constitute symbolic forms as they track the rituals of the object’s accession and disciplinary assimilation (Swinney, 2012). To what classes of knowledge is this object admitted, from which is it excluded? At stake in styles of communication within the apparently neutral tools of finding aids, access, and storage (including digital tools) are ‘complex notions of cognition, memory and excavation’ (Blouin and Rosenberg, 2011, p 4). In other words, these are processes which embed both historical and current institutional identities.

To take a category, so obvious and so naturalised: the photographer. In almost all museum practices around photography the primary way in to the collections is by creator, the photographer. It is the privileged field – it is cited first – it meets the eye of the enquirer immediately. It takes its form from the library catalogue card with its concern about authorship, even in its digital manifestations. But more significantly, as a repeated pattern of information arrangement, it embeds within the structure of the museum the privileging of individual creativity and all that that implies. Gillian Rose, for instance, has demonstrated how the practices of description and cataloguing of Lady Hawarden’s photographs at the V&A construct her as ‘an artist’ (Rose, 2000). In this connection it is interesting that in recent years the Getty, possibly responding to the new interdisciplinary historiography of photography, has shifted from referring to anonymous jobbing daguerreotypists as artists, implying an aesthetic intention, to ‘makers’ suggesting a more generic sense of object production. Another example is the differing emphasis in the cataloguing of Bill Brandt photographs between the V&A, which emphasise authorship, subordinated to content, and Historic England, which privileges unmediated content of the photographs.[1] Of course both approaches are entirely legitimate and explicable, but they furnish a useful example of differential focus at the intersection of process, format, style and content premised on location and attendant thought-landscapes. However, it is significant how this textual and visual privileging of individual creation has been normalised in the way a whole range of institutions, even those primarily interested in the content of the photograph, have absorbed this art historical model of the creator as the privileged shaping of significance around a photograph.

Significantly, at Historic England the Bill Brandt ‘object’ is a negative, not the print which would render it an art object, as in the case of the V&A photographs. The material form of photographic usage and survival has a clear relation to the practices of categorisation I am considering here and the ways in which they are shown, or not, in museums. The dominant form of photographic collecting as museum object has been the print. This relates to the discourses of modernist curatorship and the fine print, the final act of photographic production. Conversely negatives are not perceived as having aesthetic value in and of themselves. In the entrenched thought-landscapes of museums, they are merely instruments of the production of the desired print. Thus negatives, and like other ‘functional’ forms such as lantern slides, tend to be marginalised as archives, as supporting objects of higher hierarchical value rather than valued in their own right. For instance Damarice Amao (2015) has described the practical and conceptual challenges to the core assumptions of photographic collecting practices when the photographic work of surrealist artist Eli Lotar was acquired by the George Pompidou Centre not as prints but as unremarkable boxes of negatives; while Glenn Willumson (2004) argued that until recently stereocards were largely excluded from writing on ‘the history of photography’ because not only were they ‘commercial’ in production but their small, questionable print made them ‘unexhibitable’ in terms of gallery aesthetics. The point of these examples is the way in which categories of value and their implications are performed through everyday museum practices.

Perhaps the root of the uncertainty identity of photographs in museums (see Edwards and Lein, 2014) is their ambiguity in the key areas of museum value hierarchy – uniqueness, preciousness, significance and material specificity. Photographs exist as multiple originals. With the exception of daguerreotypes, tintypes, polaroids and a few other single image techniques, the multiplicity is the nature of the medium. Consequently a range of museums, including the Science Museum, can hold historical and contemporaneous prints of a photograph by, for instance, W H Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron or Roger Fenton, stars of the art canon, and still legitimately claim to hold an ‘original’. But photographs spawn further originals, which also reside in museums, for instance, negatives, multiple prints, lantern slides, copy and mediated prints (details, crops, enlargements) and even the born-digital. All have legitimate claims to be ‘original historical objects’. Thus the very physical identity is ambiguous in museum terms as the ‘originality’ and ‘significance’ of ‘a photograph’ might be dispersed across many related but discrete objects. While photographs are not the only multiple originals to be collected by museums – coins and medals, prints and some industrially-produced objects spring to mind here – their multiplicity and its material performance is of a different order. The ubiquity of forms challenge the hierarchies of value and the categories that sustain them. What is a multiple original, what is a reproduction, and when does it become historically significant? All are assessments of hierarchy premised on location and category.

Equally ambiguous, but marked by the division between the categories of ‘collection’ and ‘non-collection’, that I noted above, is that photographs and photography are the only class of museum object which is simultaneously a collectable item (a precious object) and a tool of management (used to record and present objects within the museum from conservation reports to websites), both of which are pertinent to museum practices and broader histories and constitute objects and processes that offer historical understanding, especially in the context of increasing interest in collecting histories (see Edwards and Morton, 2015). This is compounded by a slippage of language between ‘photograph’ (a thing) and photography (a process or activity). What exactly is being collected and under what rubrics? As Douglas Crimp notes, the ‘fatal error’ for museums, and especially those invested in photography, is to admit the very thing that constitutes it (Crimp, 1993, p 56) – because it devalues the intellectual, and indeed financial, investment in the assumed values that have rendered some photographs as ‘important’ and others not. As a result, the boundaries of photographic collectability tend to be heavily policed through institutional thought-landscapes, patterns of patronage and facilitation and indeed public expectation as to what photography ‘is’. As Bowker and Star have argued ‘each standard and category valorises some point of view and silences another’ (1999, p 5). As photographic knowledge builds up as an accumulated resource, it remains contained within clearly defined parameters and patterns and which values are permitted to be articulated (Foucault, 1995, pp 50–51, 128). As Tony Bennett and colleagues, following Latour, have recently put it, if museums are ‘centres of calculation’ which gather objects and assign meaning, the practices of ordering ‘have implications for varied forms of action’ and the ways in which values expressed through institutional practices are brought to bear upon diverse assemblages (2017, p 25). Thus has tended to perpetuate a dominant and dominating discourse that photographs are ascribed significance through a series of broadly aesthetic values and through individual creativity, values that are themselves grounded in deeply embedded, self-perpetuating assumptions. This is not a crude suppression or valorisation, but the imperceptible operation of normalised and naturalised thought-landscapes of institutional location.

The extent to which disciplinary landscapes and languages shape research was brought home to me forcibly last year when I participated in an ‘at the print’ class for art history students at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a major anthropology collection. We pulled from the collection Julia Margaret Cameron’s famous portrait of Charles Darwin. Despite having done a Cameron class some weeks before the students seemed unable to recognise the photographer, and possibly not the sitter. Cameron’s portrait of Darwin, embedded in the thought processes, language and storage regimes of anthropology was literally ‘unrecognisable’. Further, the print, which has a halo of chemical deterioration, was not the pristine object of the art history text book. Collection history and the category of subject over creator had marked it materially. It had been in the possession of a scientist and then in a general box labelled ‘famous scientists’ (PRM 1998.266), rather than treated to the curatorial practices of a precious art object. As a tension between location and category it perhaps demonstrated what Mary Douglas (1966) described as matter out of place – something in the wrong category, in the wrong hierarchical place, which thereby becomes simultaneously inexplicable and dangerous in that it has the potential to destabilise, even overturn, the values that sustain the thought-landscape.

Perhaps photographs are more sensitive to where they are put than some other classes of museum object because they can be everywhere and nowhere: their meanings are so fluid, they can be made into many things, like the Darwin photograph. One consequence of this confusion of institutional meanings is that it is difficult to do the kind of joined up, interdisciplinary cross-institutional research that the new ethnographically inclined scholarship on the historiographies of photography have demanded over the last decade or so. These historiographies are expanding, complicating and challenging the linear trajectories of photography’s historical narrative, especially the way it has been articulated in museums. An example is Mirjam Brusius’ positioning of W H Fox Talbot as a polymath with a host of more pressing interests who happened to invent photography (Brusius, 2013). But such new interpretations are dependent on being able to cut across institutional thought-landscapes. New research is vital to challenge the boundaries of museums’ limitations but is at the same time constrained by them.

While no location is necessarily invalid, my argument is that the construction of a category is an epistemological and ethical choice which absorbs photographs into normalised discourses. Given that, as I’ve suggested, many historically significant photographs sit outside the patterns of evaluation that I have described here, this position is worryingly systemic rather than open and acknowledged. My 2012 monograph, Camera as Historian, is a case in point. The book is on historical imagination and popular history, yet like many other books with photography in the title, it was placed in art history sections of libraries – sitting at TR57 in the Library of Congress system. Photography as opposed to history was privileged as the subject matter. The subtext is of course that if it engages with photographs it can’t be real ‘History’ – but that is another paper (Edwards forthcoming). Books are set on this category trajectory by their default placing on the ‘art lists’ of publishers, regardless of whether or not they are anything to do with arts practice or use an art historical methodology. Such assumed categories are also at work in research peer review systems by which scholarly work is assessed for grant funding or publication. Projects that do not sit comfortably within these assumed categories too often founder on the rocks of peer review category problems. These systems, collectively, tend to privilege and reproduce the dominant but naturalised discourses that I have described.

Yet despite the entrenched configurations of institutional thought-landscapes, categories are unstable and increasingly so in a digital age where practices of digital fragmentation and assemblage are ‘beginning to undermine one of our most deeply ingrained ways of thinking’ (Weinberger, 2007, p 22). At a practical level one sees this through exhibitions, where digital technologies and new display techniques are also beginning to admit other formats from the networks of multiple originals, for instance Tate Britain’s 2014 exhibition The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery.[2] The Science Museum’s Dawn of Photography exhibition on W H Fox Talbot[3] included chemical experiments and botanical specimens that work within the central narrative of the exhibition, not merely as framing ‘context’ for a central artist. At the V&A, The Camera Exposed included non-collection photographs from the Museum’s archives, although interestingly the featured photographs on the website were all photographs traditionally categorised as art (V&A, 2016, website). This is not merely a change in fashion in exhibitions, but reflects the shifting categories and hierarchies of values which are increasingly reshaping how photographs are thought about by museums. There are very few photographic exhibitions now, even those which take the ‘traditional row of fine photographs’ approach to display, which do not include the material performance or social and haptic relations of photographs (see Edwards, 2016, blog Fotomuseum Winterthur).

Nevertheless, given the institutional, intellectual and financial investments at stake, the question is raised as to the degree to which there is a blurring of category edges. On the one hand, there are moves away from the confined and singular categories of photographs of the kind that had defined modernist models of curatorship. On the other hand, what is the extent to which such moves merely subject them to the dominant categories, while doing little to disturb the boundaries and the thought-landscapes? An increasing number of non-collection photographs are being presented under the rubrics of ‘important early photographs’. But often they are evaluated in terms of, for instance, antiquity, within a discourse of ‘fine early photography’ rather than for their formative role in the performance of a set of institutional values and their technical responses to it. In other words, is this merely a reinforcement of extant categories and a movement of photographs, which had for years been the basis for collecting between those categories or a wholesale re-evaluation of what those categories are actually doing?

Resonating through this position is category of materiality, because the tension between object and image, information and preciousness, is central to photographic ambiguity in museums, as the embracing of early prints suggests. Thought-landscapes in institutions have increasingly embraced a sense of the material in the way photographs function. Initially this was perhaps part of a curatorial agenda to raise the status of photographs in the hierarchy of museum values, especially when funding bodies, keen on ‘access’, view digitisation as the cure-all panacea for photograph collections. Material arguments effectively became a necessary strategy, at a moment of danger, to position the mass of photographs in the conceptual categories and language of objects rather than merely images. This offered a conceptual base to preserve them against the assumption that they were nothing but the information of their content, and the attendant presumption, often by managers charged with turning institutional values into financial plans, that one could digitise the image content and the originals become irrelevant and thus disposable. As I have suggested, this was particularly the case for photographs which were categorised as information and archives, not as museum objects, and where, therefore, the dominant categories of ‘precious’, ‘unique’ and ‘individual creativity’ could offer no protection. The almost wholesale destruction of the photograph collections in the ethnography department of the National Museum of Scotland as late as the 1960s furnishes a salutary tale here (Knowles, 2014).

The focus on materiality was not, however, merely a collapse into connoisseurial assessments of the fine print, but represented a growing concern within the new historiography to understand photographs as social objects, held in the hand, stuck in albums, projected in lecture rooms and so forth. There was an awareness that the meaning of photographs emerged as much from material and sensory dynamics which were themselves historical, and thus within the remit of museum preservation ethos, as it did from the pictorial. Not only was there an intellectual challenge from scholars and curators to reclassifying photographs from images to objects, or rather image-objects, but the challenge to find a language of description, arrangement and communication which was not the language of connoisseurship and the fine print, but was something premised on, perhaps, social usages, for instance the shift from ‘artist’ to ‘maker’ that I noted earlier (see for instance, Edwards and Hart, 2004; Batchen, 2004; Edwards and Morton, 2015). Above all there was a growing awareness, in this ‘material turn’, of archival fragility. The debate about the fundamental historical importance of the materiality of the analogue forms of photography was forged within a growing anxiety about the relationship between photographic analogue and digital collections, and indeed the very future of those analogue collections.[4]

This brings me to the other major challenge to categories which is, of course, the digital environment and the challenges of unbounded assemblage to which I referred earlier. While I can only mark it here, I raise it nonetheless because it is at the heart of contemporary debates and tensions about categories. It raises questions about what happens to categories of information when, for instance, catalogues are translated from analogue to digital forms. For digitisation projects are never neutral, they are shaped institutional habitus manifest through institutional thought-landscapes and its categories. Ways of thinking about information even in a digital age emerge from thought processes that reach back centuries as ‘historically framed qualities invade the current sense of facts’ (Morgan, 2011, p 9). This process is integral to all I have described. For instance international standards and arrangements in metadata developed for museums tend, for photographs, to stress traditional and broadly art historical categories and hierarchies of maker, style or genre, rather than, for instance, cultural or historical ones which might inform, say, an anthropology museum.

Object-orientated democracies of ‘digital heritage’ are part of a global flow in information and the infinite assemblage and reassemblage of images. Collections of photographs and their categorisations are increasingly managed to this end. Further, as rectangular flat objects, photographs are seen as ‘easy’ to digitise and lending themselves to digital dissemination. Targets can be met. In the process, photographs are too often reduced to content rather than being presented as dynamic objects, and layers of historical information obliterated as records are ‘updated’. Again, how does this shape research? While digital tools can undoubtedly offer opportunities of open-ended assemblage (or more negatively what Weinberger (2007) has called ‘a disorder of the infinite’) and a liberation from categories, museum applications too often simply replicate existing structures, and thus seem to be more backward looking than forward.

Underpinning the debates about access there is perhaps that seductive, methodological lure that looking at more pictures, delivered through museum platforms, will somehow help us to understand better, that simply being able to see an image online suffices for research. Probably all of us working on photographs have received the dispiriting response, on asking for an archival appointment, ‘Well, why? You can see it all online.’ Certainly the dialect subtly changes despite continuing claims to objectivity. Changes of medium, changes in language (shifts in metadata) are processes of translation, re-contextualisation and re-figuration inflicting or imposing new meanings (Lager Vestberg, 2013). Possibly, but to accomplish that, the underlying categories have to be different rather than simply embedding dominant disciplinary and thus institutional thought-landscapes, even when the latter are delivered across multiple and expansive extra-museum locations. There are, of course, some admirable research-focused digital resources which privilege materiality, seriality and the networks of multiple originals in their presentation of photographs, for instance the travel albums of Isabella Stewart Gardner from the museum that bears her name or the Pitt Rivers Museum‘s Tibet Album project.[5] However, more broadly, an over-dependence on uncritical and assumed values of digital environments and their mediators threatens to have a detrimental effect on photographic research.

Arguably digital environments, with their ‘spectacular diffusion of information’ and the impact on both means and ends of collection activity (Kallinkos, 2006, p 2), demand sharper critical understanding of, and engagement with, the nature of the thought-landscapes that generate them. They demand an excavation of the layers of historical disciplinary investments and the operation of their category assumptions, which are all too often invisible to both creators and users. The digital, which both enlivens and haunts photographs and museums, presents intellectual problems and epistemologies which demand new methods and new categories of relations between the qualitative and quantitative. Can this disorder be understood as the collapse of categories or does the invisibility of categories and their apparent digital re-/de-location simply become obscured? On current evidence one rather suspects the latter.

My argument here is not particularly original. It obviously skims over a huge and complex field, and it has long been acknowledged that museums (locations) make objects. Much has been said on the power relations of museums and the implications of their classifications and categories, see for instance, Rose (2000; 2005), critics such as Sekula (1995) and Bal (1996), museum and archive writers such as Hamilton et al (2002), Schwartz (2007; 2011), Swinney (2012) and Brothman (1991), writers on institutions, information and technological change, for instance Kallinkos (2006) and one could cite many more. But it is necessary to revisit these ideas, first because with one or two notable exceptions – such as the work of Joan Schwartz (2011) or Nina Lager Vestberg (2013) or the useful summary by Tim Schlak (2008) – photographs have been largely absent from the debate.

None of the positionings of photographs I have discussed is ‘wrong’ in and of itself. However, I have adopted a polemical position to bring to the surface the ways in which photographs have been so effectively absorbed into dominant historiographical categories that they are, in many of their institutional manifestations, invisible or visible only in certain ways. Second, a robust revisiting is necessary because, despite all the changes and progress of recent years, there is perhaps an apparently escalating fragility of photograph collections that lie beyond an increasingly and regressively dominating canon. One thinks here of the fate of the collections at Birmingham City Library where one of the finest and most eclectic photograph collections in the country has been effectively mothballed and specialist staff made redundant[6], the plan to charge for access to the archives (including photographs) of the Imperial War Museum (fortunately suspended)[7], or the narrow escape of non-collections photographs at Tate Britain. Here the photographs of art works and comparable pieces which formed the archival archaeology of British art collecting were going to be thrown out until rescued and taken in by the Yale Centre for British Art and Yale University.[8] With the majority of photographs, the power to maintain integrity within the face of institution thought-landscapes and their category assumptions is not strong.

The result of this is that the way that institutions project themselves and their value systems onto objects and how objects are made to perform in certain ways has a profound influence on the way that they function as research objects and is part of this system of entrenchment of value systems around photographs. This position continues to constrain the kinds of things photographs become and the kinds of locations where photographic research can be undertaken. And this, for me, is worrying.

Such a position changes the questions that are and can be asked, it changes objects, here photographic objects, from one kind of thing to another, shaping the kinds of histories that can be written at a given historical moment. It is necessary to attend to the shaping of hierarchies of institutional value, to the way photographic reproducibility cuts across how we think about value in museums, about what gets written about and therefore inserted into the discourse of photographic history and what does not, and ultimately how we are able to do research in and on photographic collections and the institutions that shape them. Even allowing for the re-codability of the object and the agency of the researcher, I would argue that those thought-landscapes are deeply embedded and naturalised within the assumptions of institutional structures and their investments, that the kinds of history of photography research that are done are legitimated through those institutions and structures of research, even in a digital age. What does that mean for the futures of photographic collections and research, caught as fragile objects between categories of institutional interpretation and significance?

Anthropologist Daniel Miller has argued of material culture: ‘The less we are aware of them [here institutional thought-landscapes], the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviours, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes places to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so’ (Miller, 2005, n.p.). In other words, arguably things and systems are at their most powerful when they are not noticed. The institutional thought-landscapes that produce photographs as one kind of thing or another are seldom noticed, yet they have a profound effect on the kinds of histories written, the kinds of research done at the very moment when new historiographies of photography are emerging. Epistemological, intellectual and physical locations matter too.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170709/001