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National Media Museum changes direction as collections move to V&A London

An historic agreement between the Science Museum Group (SMG) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is set to create the world’s foremost collection on the art of photography according to a press release published by the V&A Museum.

  • World’s leading collection on the art of photography to be created at the V&A
  • RPS Collection to move to V&A London
  • National Media Museum to focus on STEM subjects
  • No future national museum of photography

The museums have announced that more than 400,000 objects from SMG’s three-million-strong photography collection, held at the National Media Museum, will be transferred to the V&A. These photographs, cameras, books and manuscript material will join the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 photographs to create an International Photography Resource Centre. The new Centre will provide the public with a world-class facility to access this consolidated collection, which will become the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world.

The collection being transferred encompasses exquisite vintage prints, the world’s first negative, unique daguerreotypes and early colour photographs, as well as important albums, books, cameras and the archives of major photographers. At its heart is the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection, which charts the invention and development of photography over the last two centuries.
Among the treasures moving to the V&A are works by British pioneers William Henry Fox Talbot, Hill & Adamson, Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron. The collection also demonstrates Britain’s role as an international hub for photography, with major holdings by artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. Highlights of the consolidated collection will include Oscar Rejlander’s 1857 ground-breaking composite The Two Ways of Life, Mervyn O’Gorman’s intriguing 1913 autochrome Christina, Yusuf Karsh’s iconic Winston Churchill portrait and Angus McBean’s surreal study of Audrey Hepburn alongside works by contemporary photographers including Martin Parr, Sarah Jones, Susan Derges and Simon Roberts.

V&A Director, Martin Roth, said: The V&A and Science Museum Group have shared origins and uniting our complementary collections will create a peerless historical and artistic photography resource. Our ambitious plans for enhancing digital access, collaborative research, touring exhibitions and creating an International Photography Resource Centre will mean that future generations of visitors and researchers will benefit from these examples of the most important artistic developments in artistic photographic history.”

Dr Michael Pritchard, Director-General of the RPS, said: “The RPS has worked closely with the National Media Museum since 2003 to ensure that the world-class RPS Collection of photographs, technology, books and documents from 1827 to 2016 has grown and developed. I am pleased that we can further enhance the RPS Collection’s stature alongside the V&A’s own art photography collection and make it more widely available to the public and scholars and ensuring it remains a prime resource for future generations.  The RPS is extremely fortunate to benefit from the support and expertise of one of the world’s most revered cultural institutions.”

A commitment has been given that the RPS Collection will be retained as a distinct entity and there will be negotiations over the coming weeks to ensure that the the current partnership agreement with the National Media Museum is carried over to the V&A. While the move will prove beneficial in opening up access to the RPS Collection the Society is concerned that the absence of a single institution with the curatorial expertise to collect and interpret all aspects of photography beyond its art will lead to a selective and narrow appreciation of photography that existed before the formation of the National Media Museum in 1983 when the V&A and Science Museum worked independently.

There will be challenges for the V&A which houses the national collection of art photography to deal with photographic technology and science that forms a key part of the RPS Collection. The Society will be keen to see the V&A expand its remit to take responsibility for the National Photography Collection. There will be further announcements over the coming weeks regarding the transfer, timings and impact on the other collections held at the National Media Museum and senior curatorial staff have entered a period of consultation regarding their jobs. 

Once transferred, the collection will be stored, digitised and made accessible for study. In the short term, the permanent gallery space dedicated to photographs at the V&A will be doubled. A second phase will see the opening of an International Photography Resource Centre to provide unprecedented opportunities for access, collaborative research and education with this unrivalled collection. As part of the agreement, the V&A will work closely with SMG to give access to the transferred collections for future scholarship and exhibitions.

The National Media Museum in Bradford – one of the four museums that make up SMG – is refocusing its photography collections to align with its own strategic emphasis on the science, technology and culture of light and sound. The National Media Museum will retain the collections which support an understanding of the development of photographic processes (such as the Kodak Museum collection), the ongoing cultural impact of photography (such as the Daily Herald archive) as well as photographic archives that have specific relevance to Bradford (such as the Impressions Gallery archive). A new £1.5 million interactive light and sound gallery is due to open in March 2017.

See more here: http://www.rps.org/news/2016/january/rps-collection-to-move-to-vand...

There is more background relevant to Bradford here: http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/business/14244537.National_Me...

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Comment by Jane Buekett on February 17, 2016 at 19:36
I am an outsider in this debate but I do feel saddened by the idea of the V&A being sole custodian of phtography. I have just been to see the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A.There are some wonderful images but the exhibition seems dumbed down, cramped and slightly incoherent to me. There is a strong focus on technique, which is hardly the point of Cameron's photography. The room is oppressive and for some reason painted dark red to make it even gloomier. In contrast the Science Museum's Media Space exhibit is a delight - beautifully hung, intelligent and with far clearer explanation of Cameron and her art. It is less well publicised, and less tacky. The V&A's VictorianMe facility that provides windows for visitors to take photos of each other 'in Cameron's signature style' is stupid, offensive and completely misses what she was about. Does the V&A really have to cater to the lowest common denominator? Can people not use their brains even slightly to understand Victorian ideas of truth and beauty, to notice how extraordinarily contemporary some of her work is? Or how she prefigures so many important photographers?
Comment by Larry J Schaaf on February 5, 2016 at 17:00

It saddens me to see photography being kicked around the field like this.  Confusion and mis-information, some resulting from a paucity of data, some intentional, reigns.  We are expending precious energy fighting each other rather than taking on the real bad guys.  In the 19th century, capitalists were eager to fund libraries and mechanics institutes, knowing that there were long-range profits that would more than offset short-range expenses.  Political forces, and by inference, society itself no longer have that view.

Let me declare up front that I was opposed to the Science Museum’s collection of photography being cut away from its companion collections and research resources in London and being transferred to Bradford in the first place.  However, I stand firmly behind my friend Colin Ford’s vision that Britain should have a National Photography Collection.  In fact it did while he was there, supported by the likes of Roger Taylor and other senior staff.  Since his departure, the museum and its parent have steadily cut staff and resources for research, cataloguing and public access. More recently, extreme funding pressures have forced current management to make some terrible decisions.  I cannot agree with much of what they have decided, but it is clear that nasty decisions had to be made and I am glad that I was not saddled with making them. A very small staff of dedicated people have kept the museum going as best they could.  I was working in the museum last week the very day that the staff cuts and move were announced and I can testify to the human toll that this is taking among my friends there.  But it has been a long time in coming and there have been many other casualties along the way prior to this.

 Without the useless exercise of trying to pin blame, it must be said that the limited staff at Bradford could do only so much, even with volunteer overtime, and consequently there has been very little cataloguing, very little organised digitising, and very restricted access for researchers.  It has not been a satisfactory situation for a long time and it is getting progressively worse.  There is also the case that Bradford itself does not have a supportive research environment – the university is minimal and there are no significant library or other intellectual resources.  It is an expensive place to get to for those foreign visitors who naturally do much of their research in London.  The percentage of local researchers is small.

The discussion so far has largely centred on the important RPS collection but we must bear in mind that the equally important Science Museum collection (including its 6000+ Talbots) is also involved.  I strongly disagree that this is a ‘rape’ of Bradford’s cultural resources, for that idea can only be held by those with a very short memory.  The RPS started out as The Photographic Society of London and for most of its history it was based there.  Then it went to Bath before being purchased by Bradford twelve years ago.  In my opinion, it was criminal for the then management of the RPS to sell off their patrimony, depriving future Society members of their past.  The Science Museum photography collection built up in London over more than a century as part of a range of associated collections.  Neither of these collections was native to Bradford, never part of its heritage.  The Impressions Gallery, built up in Bradford, is rightfully staying there, along with other collections that the museum sees as being part of their new mission.  Even if the efforts to keep the collections in Bradford were somehow to be successful, that would represent a failure, for there is no reason to assume that suddenly adequate resources would magically appear to support them.

 As has been pointed out elsewhere, the collections of the V&A and the Science Museum were originally not distinct from each other.  In fact, the RPS collection was originally in the Science Museum in London and for much of the 20th century there was a lot of cross-pollination.  I recall in the 1970s when many items in the collections were freely shared between the Science Museum and the RPS. 

Mark Haworth-Booth bravely started carving out a place for photography at the V&A many years ago, drawing together scattered collections.  Marta Weiss’s really excellent Cameron exhibition currently up vividly illustrates the long involvement with photography at the V&A, starting with Sir Henry Cole.  The V&A’s attitude towards photography has evolved over the years, as she demonstrates, but she has used Cameron as a vehicle to clearly validate the idea that the Museum has photography in its DNA.  Yes, their current gallery is too small, but they have promised a larger one.  Their fine staff under Martin Barnes will be inadequate to handle the expanded collection – surely it will be added to offering employment opportunities.  I’ve been a researcher in the V&A and National Art Library for four decades now and am very pleased with the experience.  I wish that the V&A had accepted the mantle of National Collection of Photography rather than limit it to National Collection of Art Photography.  Surely there were some political and institutional pressures involved there. I don’t know any of the details of the transaction and sadly information is rolling out in bits and bobs.  The current management at the Science Museum and at Bradford clearly do not want the burden of these collections, preferring to place their limited resources in other directions.  

As a field we must make a success of this, lemonade from lemons if you must.  I for one will do whatever I can to make it a success and strengthen the position of the history of photography in Britain.  I owe it that.  I got my start in this field teaching at The University of Texas at Austin, home of the Gernsheim Collection.  There were reasons why Gernsheim was rejected in the 1950s and the opportunity was lost then.  They were mostly personal and political reasons.  Let us stop the intrusion of these into the current discussion and apply our energies to supporting these collections and ensuring that the V&A does right by them.

 

 

 

 

Comment by Geoff Lowe on February 4, 2016 at 16:40

At last the RPS collection is coming home, and at last the V&A have become aware of photography. They should never have let it go to Bradford and they should never have rejected the opportunity to house the Gernsheim collection. A collection made in London and now sadly for us is in the USA.

Let us hope that the V&A is given funding to make it readily available to the world.

Comment by Stephen Bottomore on February 2, 2016 at 3:09

Hi Michael, As for the RPS library collection and the concern you mention that it might get lost in the National Art Library, well I can tell you it's 'lost' already in a sense. Try and find a list of the periodicals/books on the internet. You can't! The collection has been in Bradford for years and they haven't even put a basic inventory of the volumes on a website. It's not as if it would need much work: items were catalogued years ago in printed volumes.

Comment by Stephen Bottomore on February 2, 2016 at 2:48

Is there anything one can do to lobby to get the Urban collection of documents etc back to London? London is clearly its natural home. Charles Urban's film companies were mainly based in London, including his Kinemacolor operation; the NFTVA (Britain's largest collection of archive films) is based in and around London; Urban's films were premiered in London. Could we start a campaign to bring the Urban collection back?

PS. Perhaps you are wondering what my avatar is to the left? It is an image of John Mackenzie, who came from Inverness in order to work for Urban as his greatest cameraman. Mackenzie filmed all over the world, but was based in - you guessed it - London.

Comment by Michael Pritchard on February 1, 2016 at 19:10

Hi, Stephen. The RPS library is part of the RPS Collection and will go to the V&A with the rest of the Collection. Details still be worked out but the Society is keen that it isn't subsumed and lost within the National Art Library. 

My guess is that the Urban Collection will stay in Bradford as it will fit within the NMeM's new remit. 

Michael.

Comment by Stephen Bottomore on February 1, 2016 at 17:35

I'm wondering what will become of two collections:

1) The huge RPS collection of photographic periodicals that was once in London, then in Bath, and then sent up to Bradford.

2) The Charles Urban collection, which was once held in the Science Museum, London and also got sent up to Bradford.

Will these collections be returning to London?

Comment by Derek Trillo MA ARPS on February 1, 2016 at 14:47

Where will the "International Photography Resource Centre" be? In the V and A?, in London? Why/how does this allow greater access to the RPS collection? Access was fine already wasn't it?

No mention here of the future exhibition policy in Bradford. They have been showing Media Space exhibitions (free) in the north for many years, will that continue, or will there only be a technology/science remit? Just when we're finally grasping the notion that it's possible to have national collections outside the captital (there is more than one city in the UK, shock, horror!!) just as many other countries do, photography makes a u-turn :-(

Comment by Michael Pritchard on February 1, 2016 at 14:24

Jane - I think that may be slightly unfair to the V&A :) Although the permanent gallery is small (but is going to be doubled in size) the V&A has mounted and hosted some impressive special exhibitions of photography. The permanent gallery also changes regularly with a different theme, presenting historical and new work.

Comment by Jane Buekett on February 1, 2016 at 12:52

Given the V&A's record on exhibiting photography this is a bit worrying. It has only ever allocated tiny spaces to the medium. Will this change in the future? And what happens to the Science Museum's wonderful Media Space? I hope we will still see art photography exhibitions there.

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