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

The new landscape

The institutional changes represent a dislocation, both for the lives of individuals affected and for a set of ideas, experiences and knowledge. There is a loss for SMG and this should be acknowledged. With that said, I want to reflect on the importance of two related and significant gaps in the public discussion about the meaning of the move, in ways not entirely unrelated to my previous point. Vocal supporters of the decision explain it as a forward-looking step required for the Bradford museum to adopt a new STEM-based programme. In separate, published explanations, Jo Quinton-Tulloch, Director of the National Science and Media Museum, and Mary Archer, Chair of the SMG Trustees, highlighted what Quinton-Tulloch describes as an effort to ‘inspire future generations of scientists and engineers in Bradford’ (Quinton-Tulloch, 2016; Archer, 2016).

Opponents have focused on what is being sacrificed to the change. The decision to relocate important sections of the collection to London has been taken by some as symptomatic of an increasing north/south divide, described by one Bradford councillor as an act of ‘cultural vandalism’. These critics argue that a move destined to strip a museum in Bradford of significant assets raises awkward questions for optimistic talk of a so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ (Halliday and Jordison, 2016). Freedom of Information requests have compounded the problem, revealing that SMG trustees only considered London-based museums as the potential recipients for the donation (Pidd and Halliday, 2016). Other opponents – including a group of ‘83 prominent figures in art, film and photography’ – have argued for the importance of a single integrated institutional history of photography, spanning the full variety of its applications and technological supports. The decision to separate ‘art’ from photography’s ‘applied’ histories, they explain, marks a backward step in our understanding of visual culture (‘Opposition Grows’, 2016).

The debate about Bradford has remained deeply polarized. Accusations are made and sometimes answered, but there are few signs that those who publicly oppose the move have engaged with the politics implicit within the arguments made in favour. An exclusive focus on the importance of what is being sacrificed has ensured that the cause to which the sacrifices are being made has evaded critical scrutiny. Neither the press nor a wider ‘photographic community’ have paid much notice to the forces that power the move and which may have provided a framework of legitimacy for the decision in the eyes of those who made it. Most people outside the Science Museum still know remarkably little about exactly what future generations of scientists and engineers in Bradford will be inspired to do or, most importantly, why SMG trustees believe that activity to be more desirable than those other activities potentially inspired by parts of the collection now on their way to London.

In repeated published statements, David Cameron’s Conservative government stressed the importance of STEM. For the former prime minister, it represented a vital ‘part of a long-term economic plan’ necessary for Britain ‘to win in the global race’ and for ‘children [to] compete and get the best jobs’ (Coughlan, 2014). Speaking in November 2014, former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan queried the importance of arts and humanities degrees in preparing students for industry, actively encouraging more 16–18 year olds to study STEM subjects if they want to secure future employment (Garner, 2014). At least in statements such as these, neither the former Prime Minister nor his Education Secretary demonstrate any interest in the direct social benefits of STEM; in its capacity to develop new forms of knowledge and understanding capable of changing lives and societies for the better. Instead, they talk about global races and competitive economics: an emaciated version of why science matters.

This leads to a second observation regarding the gaps in the public discussion about Bradford. Quinton-Tulloch highlighted that the decision to refocus on STEM was, in fact, a direct consequence of a thirty per cent cut to the Science Museum Group’s budget (Quinton-Tulloch, 2016). Bradford, it seems, could not afford an inter-disciplinary view on photography any more. The cut to funding for a public institution was the result of the ‘austerity’ agenda relentlessly pursued by the Conservative government in response to an economic collapse caused by the financial industries. In short, it was a consequence of the type of free-market ideology that reduces science and technology – not to mention art, culture and museums – to engines for economic growth, while ensuring the fruits of that growth remain concentrated in the hands of powerful financial elites (Harvey, 2005, p 5).

The planned move is not only about photography, art, STEM or even about a north/south divide. These are symptoms and not the disease; each taking form according to the ideological contours of the wider politico-economic landscape. What is happening at the National Science and Media Museum is happening to university education, to the state comprehensive system, to Legal Aid, to council houses, to the BBC, to junior doctors, to public libraries, to Disability Living Allowance, to social care, to the funding for academic research. Bradford’s STEM agenda appears to be an effort to make the best of a bad situation. But – Quinton-Tulloch’s brief comments aside – this is an approach that risks leaving questions of causation unacknowledged and so, too, unaddressed. Against the backdrop of a dramatically shrinking state, political neutrality and a can-do spirit start to look worryingly like self-harm.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170708/005