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V&A talks about its future plans and the RPS Collection

The Royal Photographic Society’s Historical Group held a series of talks at the V&A Museum on 25 March. One of these provided the first opportunity for the Society and the public to hear about the museum’s plans for the RPS Collection which has now been relocated to the V&A. Martin Barnes, senior curator of photographs, and Susannah Brown, curator of photographs, spoke about the plans for a V&A Photography Resource Centre and the RPS Collection.

Barnes spoke first about the Resource Centre. He introduced his presentation by explaining that the move of the RPS Collection to the museum had acted as a catalyst for the Centre and reimagining how the museum presented photography. The combination of the V&A photography collection, which is the designated national collection of art photography, combined with the RPS Collection makes the combined V&A holdings ‘one of the largest and most precious collections of photography in the world’.

The museum’s plans for new photography galleries and the Resource Centre fall in to two phases. Phase One deal with Rooms 99-101 and 108 which show photography and will be reworked by Autumn 2018; Phase Two, deals with Rooms 95-98 and the new Resource Centre and will be completed by 2022, subject to securing appropriate funding. The spaces will form a contiguous and integrated space.

The museum already has a dedicated photographer/digitiser working on the RPS Collection, plus a cataloguer and, shortly, a conservator.  Public programming, with the museum’s learning department collaborating to develop photography events, will become more important and the photography department’s teaching will be extended from school children through to post-graduate students.  A MA course in history of photography is in development with the Royal College of Art with which the museum already has an existing relationship. A programme leader will be appointed and the course will launch in Autumn 2018.

Separate to these initiatives the museum has appointed Professor Elizabeth Edwards as the V&A’s Research Institute’s Andrew W Mellon Visiting Professor and she will be working with the curatorial team. 

The photographs department will also be expanding its publishing programme and is exploring new print and digital offers with Thames & Hudson.  One key development for the photography collections will be the further expansion of UK and international touring exhibitions and there are discussions with the Arts Council currently in progress.  With the expansion of the photography department the museum is enhancing its visibility and is part of the new Photographic Collections Network, along with the RPS and others. The PCN will be mapping, documenting and supporting photographic collections across the UK.

Barnes also spoke about the storage of the photography collections and access. An upgraded photography store has been created in the Henry Cole Wing, next to the Prints and Drawings study room, at a cost of some £250,000. The RPS Collection is already available for study. In addition to access to original material the museum is committed to the early digital capture and sharing of the RPS Collection and this will be made available as quickly as possible.

Referring back to Phase One, the additional gallery space will double the current space for photography within the museum. The new gallery spaces will be refurbished and returned to their original appearance with improved lighting, climate and environmental controls.  They will accommodate a ‘dark tent’ space for screenings and a ‘light lab’ giving public visibility in to the scanning and digitisation process. The stairs and landing area will act as a wayfinder for the photography galleries with a display of cameras and technology.

The museum has been working with David Kohn Architects to look at how the [photography] Resource Centre (Phase Two) could work and integrate with the newly enhanced photography galleries (Phase One). Because of their nature photography will need to be rotated regularly and the collection ranges from prints, cameras and the library. A browsing library for visitors is envisaged with rare material being kept more securely. A working photography studio will allow a residency programme. The intention is for all spaces to be flexible.  Barnes stated that the Centre would be ‘a significant commitment on behalf of the V&A’. 

The integration of the V&A and RPS Collections, while preserving the latter as a discrete entity, will allow connections to be made, for example, between Talbot images, cameras and letters and he gave other examples for Herbert Ponting and Julia Margaret Cameron.  A chronological approach is likely, integrating technology, other objects and photography – the focus will be on original objects. These plans will be refined and developed over the next four to five months.  

Susannah Brown then spoke in more detail about the move of the RPS Collection from the National Media Museum, now renamed National Science and Media Museum.  The physical move of some 270,000 photographs, 6000-8000 cameras and a library of some 10,000 books had been planned meticulously. The material was documented and labelled on site in Bradford over a week to facilitate its smooth accession in London and in to the new store. The current V&A collection consists of 3485 boxes of prints and 961 rare books. The RPS Collection adds 3500 boxes of prints, plus albums, lantern slides and all the other parts of the Collection.  Material came in to the V&A over four weekends in February and she reassured those present that nothing was broken in transit. During March a further eight deliveries moved the cameras and technology and library to the V&A’s offsite store at Blythe House, in Olympia.

The department has started on high level documentation of the RPS Collection which will be followed up by detailed, item level, cataloguing. This will be publicly available via the museum’s website under ‘search the collections’. The RPS Collection photographs are already available for use in the study room, which is open from Tuesday to Friday, by appointment. Researchers are already using the material.


The V&A Word & Image department:

The V&A Photographs collection:

Search the Collections:

Images and report by Dr Michael Pritchard

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