British photographic history

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Barnardo's archive 'up for grabs' or destruction (UPDATE 3)

20 July: One of the oldest, extant, dedicated photographic archives in the world, the Barnardo's photographic archive, currently housed in Barkingside, East London is under threat. Following its digitisation the archive will be transferred to another organisation or will be destroyed.

Over the next few months, Barnardo's will be having its entire photographic archive digitised in Manchester. Due to space issues at Barnardo's, the organisation will then destroy the original images unless an archive or museum can be persuaded to save these important historic documents. The material consists of about of shelving around fifteen feet in length holding archival boxes about 8 inches deep and about 20 inches high. The pages from the original admissions ledgers have been cut out and placed in archival plastic sheets.

Dr. Thomas Barnardo began photographing the 'waifs and strays' that came into his care at his first childrens home in Stepney causeway as early as 1875, employing two photographers, Barnardo preceded most prisons and asylums by seeing the benifits of photography for institutional record keeping. He soon came into legal trouble for faking the condition of the children for the purposes of publicity. 

The importance of these beautiful images - not just to photographic history but to the study of archive practices and British social history - cannot be overstated. It is imperative that their material importance is upheld and that they do not simply become yet another archive solely made up of a smattering of zeroes and ones.

There are certain stipulations regarding the public use of images of children within their care and the images would be subject to a 100 year privacy rule but would still be accessible for private and/or scholarly work.

If you might know of an institution, archive, museum, group of people or persons that would be willing to help save this archive of historical importance please contact the head archivist at Barnardos.

Read more about the Barnardo archive here:


Update 1: A petition has been launched to 'save' the archive. Click here to view and sign. The petition addressed to Culture Minister Maria Miller has been signed by over 1000 people. 


Update 2: Barnardos has commented publicly for the first time. It says it is 'confident it will find a destination for 500,000 historic photos'. 

Update 3: According to Amateur Photographer magazine over forty offers to house the archive have been received.  

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Comment by Michael Pritchard on July 24, 2013 at 6:16

I was contacted by a journalist from a charity sector magazine yesterday so it seems to be gaining wider publicity. There are, to my knowledge, at least 3 UK institutions who are pursuing this. The other aspect raised by the journalist in my phone conversation is why Barnardo's don't sell the archive to support their charitable aims. As a charity its trustees have a duty to ensure that any assets are disposed of appropriately for their proper value. It is a possible in this scenario it could go abroad although it would need an export license. Provided it remained intact and was publicly accessible I would not see that as a particular problem, although a UK home would be my preferable. 

Comment by Geoff Barker on July 23, 2013 at 10:20

So far over 420 people from around the globe have signed this petition - and one of the most astonishing things about this for me has been the huge number of comments which illustrate the importance of photographic archives to current generations. This is particularly so for many of the heart felt comments by people who have relatives who were helped by Barnado's and feel a personal link to the collection. In fact I feel these comments could almost be added to the archive to provide a new and contemporary contextual element.

Comment by Nigel Cheffers-Heard on July 23, 2013 at 8:35

 This seems to be representative of the appalling short-termism we currently suffer from. (The recent threat to Bradford is another example). Photography seems to be a victim of its own success; it has become so all pervasive, that its intrinsic worth has plummeted in everyday perception. Of course, the exception is when money can be made from it; my personal view is that you cannot place a price on history or unique artefacts. It's time to start promoting the wider values of photography beyond mere filthy lucre or exhibition walls.

Comment by Tony Richards on July 21, 2013 at 23:59

It mentions digitisation in Manchester? Anyone know who's doing this?



Comment by Catarina Miranda on July 20, 2013 at 15:22

I have translated (freely) this article to portuguese in order to spread it!

Comment by Geoff Barker on July 20, 2013 at 13:25

After hearing this disturbing news from & I set up a Petition Save the Barnardo's Photo archive to lobby UK Minister for Arts - to spread Gavin and Martine's news - you can click here to sign the online petition.  

Comment by pete.boswell on July 20, 2013 at 11:57

I have emailed Martine King requesting a meeting or a call.

There is no reason why both the original analogue and digital assets should not be able to coexist, but I do agree with you that a digitisation project of this size and scale will more than likely be funded by one of the 2 major genealogy players and thus the digital asset will be subject to a long (10 year+) commercial license agreement.

The 2008 project was supposed to be managed by Topfoto however my understanding is that it never happened.

We managed to save the Harrow Glass plates and so we will see if we cannot do something to help save this unique archive also..Will keep you and this forum posted. 

Comment by Michael Pritchard on July 20, 2013 at 11:37

You should approach them, Pete. I suspect that there may be caveats over commercially exploiting the images - even outside of the embargo on the more recent ones. I would imagine Barnardo's digitisation project is to monetarise the images so they might not be keen on having others out there which could take away potential revenue. I see that there was a 2008 digitisation project.  

Comment by pete.boswell on July 20, 2013 at 11:19

My company would certainly offer this archive a new home if it would prevent its destruction. 

Comment by Gerlo Beernink on July 20, 2013 at 9:54

This is so stupid. A regional newspaper over in the Netherlands did the same thing. Digitize the archive and destroy. And of course to the standards of that time. Which means really low resolution now ten years after.

Hope this archive will be saved.

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