Go back to article: Moments of danger: photography, institutions and the history of the future

Histories of photography

I received the invitation to deliver a paper as part of a panel about photography at the Science Museum Group’s [SMG] inaugural research conference towards the end of 2015. A few months later, SMG announced its plans to give a significant part of the photography collection held at the National Science and Media Museum – one of the four institutions for which the umbrella group is responsible – to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. What has proved to be a controversial decision will see 400,000 objects, originally the collection of the Royal Photographic Society, and now categorised as ‘art photography’, relocated from Bradford to London (‘National Media Museum invest in science and technology’, 2016). The news came as a particular surprise given the enthusiasm for (art) photography SMG had displayed as recently as September 2013, when – with significant financial backing from Sir Richard Branson and film producer Michael Wilson, among others – Media Space opened at the Science Museum with the express purpose of showcasing Bradford’s impressive photography holdings (Media Space – Major new Photography and Art Gallery’, 2013).

The unfolding news about Bradford ensured that when the conference took place at the end of March 2016, the panel in which I participated spoke not only of photography, but also to its wider social, economic and institutional contexts. National Science and Media Museum Curator Colin Harding provided a sensitive account of photographer Percy Hennell, whom he identified as a significant figure in the histories of medicine, photography and portraiture. Hennell’s extraordinary pictures of veterans following their treatment with plastic surgery frustrated straightforward disciplinary distinctions. Anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards examined cataloguing systems as acts of foreclosure, addressing some of the ways in which the imposition of categories can work to limit an understanding of photography and the societies that produce it. Both papers took on particular poignancy against the backdrop of the SMG decision, within the context of the Science Museum’s recently opened Dana research centre, and as a consequence of the speakers’ direct involvement with building the photographic culture of the National Science and Media Museum.

Changes to the meanings of photography and their relationship to wider institutional contexts were at the heart of what I had to say then, and what I want to discuss again briefly now. In doing so, I offer a few thoughts on an exhibition I co-curated for Media Space and the National Science and Media Museum in 2015. Revelations: Experiments in Photography focused on the ways in which nineteenth-century scientific photography radically expanded the visual field and, particularly, the importance of that change for the work of a wide range of modern and contemporary artists. I start by mapping our thesis and the ways it informed decisions regarding the design and installation of the show, in order to reflect on the relationship between viewers’ experience of the exhibition, the forms of knowledge we aimed to produce, and the larger, external factors that powered our project. This is intended to spark a wider analysis of the interplay between photography and history, the histories of photography, and the social, economic and institutional contexts that shape them. I am particularly interested in the politico-economic forces that appear to be driving important changes within the UK museum landscape, and the unexpected manner in which these have resonated with ideas at the core of the exhibition I curated.

Revelations was structured as a kind of constellation, through which we hoped ideas could encircle and enrich each other, wider contexts might activate latent concepts, and meanings could develop cumulatively. I try to do something similar in this essay, which – to be clear – does not provide a fully resolved, neatly delineated or self-contained argument. Instead, it represents an exploratory effort to make sense of something I cannot claim to understand entirely. That task appears to me to require a gentle rethinking of conventional academic writing. As the essay develops, I adopt an increasingly performative position within, not apart from, the subject discussed. I enact, as much as explain, the fundamentals of my (not-quite-an) argument. The exclusions and allusions this involves may, on one level, frustrate. But they may also possess the potential to allow text and readers to inhabit the experience of attempting to make sense of that most peculiar and unstable set of circumstances: the present.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170708/001