British photographic history

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Podcast review: Drawn by Light, the move of the RPS Collection from Bradford to London

Drawn by Light is the title of a two-part podcast, totalling nearly two hours, looking at the move of the RPS Collection from Bradford to the V&A Museum, London.  It looks at the reasons behind the move and the processes which underpinned it through interviews with some of those involved and others with an interest in the move. It uses the move of the RPS Collection as a prism to examine some of the wider issues around the centralisation and the funding of the arts in the United Kingdom.

Part one opens with Colin Ford CBE, the founding Head of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT), reprising his story of how a national museum of photography came to Bradford culminating in its opening in 1983.  ‘Colin’s gift’ of the museum, as the interviewer Callum Barton puts it, was the natural home of the RPS Collection both of which embraced the art, science and technology of photography. The Collection was acquired in 2003 by his successor Amanda Nevill. When the move from Bradford to London was announced in 2016 Ford described himself as angry and upset and the move as wrong for photography, politically and geographically.

The broader context for the move has been an increasing centralisation of the arts in London and disproportionate funding cuts in the regions associated with the government's austerity programme since 2010. In to that mix the Science Museum Group’s (SMG) move to a STEM agenda, in support of government policies, spelt the end of an holistic approach to photography in Bradford. ‘Cultural asset stripping’ and more emotive phrases were used at the time.

For the National Media Museum (NMeM), the root of this lay with the near closure of the museum in 2013 and a proposed 30 per cent cut in funding. The public outcry in Bradford and from the wider photography world led to Ian Blatchford the SMG’s director being questioned by a parliamentary select committee. He defended the proposal highlighting declining visitor numbers and the impact of a poorly considered rebrand from NMPFT to NMeM in 2006. The subtext was that there was not enough science at the NMeM which had become a priority for the SMG and its constituent museums. The NMeM was ultimately saved and a process of review was set in train. In late 2012 Jo Quinton-Tulloch, was tasked with a brief to focus on science and technology and to realign the museum within the SMG. The holistic approach to photography, taking on both its art and science, was dropped in 2013 and a new mission statement published which concentrated on science and culture.

The RPS Collection with its primary focus on art and a user based concentrated on its artistic holdings became increasingly untenable.  In 2015 259 visitors used the Collection; the cost of maintaining it and making it available did not sit easily in a climate of declining funding.

Part 2 examines the transfer in more detail. In March 2015 Quinton-Tulloch proposed that the Collection be moved to a new SMG research centre. This proved unviable and the decision was ultimately taken to transfer the Collection to the V&A which offered to open it more widely physically and digitally. V&A curator Martin Barnes describes this in detail.

The wider discussion of centralisation in London of culture, a dramatic funding imbalance and an inequitable relationship between the centre and the regions occupies much of this part. Local authority cuts of 17 per cent since 2010, the stronger ability of the London institutions to raise private funding, all impact adversely on the regions. Barnes confirms that the first £1 million of the £7 million costs of the photographic research centre has already been secured in the space of a few months, something the SMG could only imagine. In 2012 80 per cent of private sector support for the arts went to London.

The RPS Collection transfer is cited as an example of London-centric trustees making decisions without any democratic or local accountability. Public consultation was absent, there was a lack of sensitivity to Bradford and the region and there had been no input from the wider photography sector. The poor handling of public criticism of the transfer by the SMG only compounded the controversy.

While due process between the SMG and V&A had been followed, the original purchase of the RPS Collection in 2003 through HLF and other sources, described in the podcast as ‘public money’, should have required a different approach. The SMG did not seek any compensation for the loss of the £4.5 million collection and Barton argues that such an approach potentially compromises future funding bids from HLF.  A policy fix is needed for such acquisitions. There are 13 further collections at the NMeM (now the National Science and Media Museum) including Tony Ray-Jones, the Herschel album, Talbot material and NMPFT/NMeM acquired material that have been earmarked for removal. Most telling, Burton suggests, is that the opportunity was missed to consolidate in Bradford at the NMeM, around one of  the greatest photography collections in the world.

So, what does the podcast tell us? Austerity and funding cuts disproportionately affect the UK regions; people do not want to lose cultural assets even if they rarely use them; that the decentralisation that saw the NMPFT move to Bradford in 1983 has been reversed; and, there is a growing centralisation of objects and funding in London. Ultimately, arts policy needs a serious and thorough review to deal with these issues.

What the podcast doesn’t do is provide the full story of the move of the RPS Collection to the V&A. There is much more that could be said around many aspects, including the original transfer from the RPS to the NMPFT and there are valid counter arguments as to why the move from Bradford to London, might have been the right one which should also be explored. These deserve an equal airing.

In the end, the debate about the RPS Collection transfer is academic. The V&A must now deliver on making the RPS Collection accessible and central to its new photography centre as it promised; the handling of any future disposals from the NMeM’s successor, the National Science and Media Museum, must be done more openly; and the photography world needs to do more to make its presence felt; although it may have been overtaken by events the absence of a national museum of photography is still up for discussion, but, most importantly, there needs to be a harder look at national arts policy, and the UK regions need to work to get the government and Arts Council England to allocate limited resources in a more equitable way.

Drawn by Light is a non-profit production for Saccadence
  it features interviews with Colin Ford, Michael Terwey, Martin Barnes, Francis Hodgson, Jo Booth and others. 
Written, edited and produced by Callum Barton
Listen to both parts here: https://www.drawnbylightpodcast.org/

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