Britain's photographic heritage is likely to be adversely impacted if proposals in a leaked National Trust discussion document come to pass. Written by the Trust's visitor experience director Tony Berry, it sets out a ten-year vision that will directly impact historic properties, curatorial and conservation posts and put collections in to storage. The Times newspaper (21 August 2020, p.5) reported on the paper and art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who also had sight of the document, flagged it on his Twitter account @arthistorynews
National Trust Director-General Hilary McGrady responded to the claims (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blogs/directors-blog/our-vision-fo...) as partial, but as Grosvenor noted she failed to deny a number of the claims, including that the Trust will 'dial down' its status as a 'major national cultural institution', make specialist curatorial staff redundant and take objects off display.
The Trust has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 not least a loss of £200 million in income caused by the closure of many of its 550 houses, parks and gardens and has already announced significant redundancies affecting some 13 per cent of its workforce, putting 1,200 employees at risk. The Trust has £1.3 billion in financial reserves, although much of these are designated and cannot be used for general purposes.
So, what does this mean for photography? The short answer at the moment is that it is unclear. The Trust has significant collections of historic and important photography - at least 50,000 images, although more is yet to be documented, across its historic properties. This includes material that is significant in its own right, along with photographs collected and made by individuals associated with its many properties.
The following are areas that the wider photographic community should be aware of, and be prepared to support, should the need arise:
- The Trust appointed its first National Photography Curator in July 2019, providing oversight of photography across the Trust's properties. As a specialist curator this new role, which was a two-year appointment, appears to be under threat.
- Roger Watson, curator of the Fox Talbot Museum is a specialist curator and, again, this role may also be under threat.
- The Trust employs specialist photographic conservators. Photographic materials are fragile and susceptible to environmental deterioration, more so than many other objects, and it is important that light sensitive materials continue to properly assessed, conserved and stored. The National Photography Curator's role was - and remains - key in surveying the Trust's collections and identifying important material and that which needs urgent conservation. It also has a key part in opening up the Hardman House collections (see below).
- The possible closure of Trust properties (see below) and the move of photographs and photographic equipment into storage will limit access to material that is of national importance, beyond the Trust's own interests.
- Although photography is in many of the Trust's properties two are particularly important:
- The Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock, was opened in 1975 to show and interpret objects relating to William Henry Fox Talbot, his life and the development of photography, and to exhibit photography. In recent years the museum has broadened its remit to contextualise Talbot within a broader history of photography and the acquisition of the Fenton Collection in 2016 has allowed it to show a history from the 1830s to the 1990s.
- Adjacent is the Grade 1 listed Lacock Abbey, Talbot's home, where many of his experiments were undertaken and the location of many of his early photographs. It is the birthplace of negative-positive photography. The house and the surrounding village of Lacock were given to the National Trust in 1944.
- E. Chambré Hardman House, Liverpool. Opened by Burrelll and Hardman in 1923 the company remained in business until c1965/6. The building and negatives were acquired by a charitable trust and later transferred to the National Trust.
- in addition, many of the National Trust's other properties contain significant smaller groups of photographs.
This piece by Grosvenor is worth reading and does not bode well for Lacock Abbey https://www.arthistorynews.com/articles/5685_Inside_the_National_Tr... In the absence of anything from the National Trust one fears the worst.
See also: https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/08/nat...
See also: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/national-trust-restructurin...
Images: © Michael Pritchard. Top: the entrance to the Fox Talbot Museum; lower: entrance to Hardman House.
Note: none of the individuals mentioned above have spoken to BPH in connection with this blog piece.