British photographic history

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Proposed changes at the National Trust may adversely impact Britain's photographic heritage - UPDATED

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. 

UPDATES >>

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.   

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Comment by Gilly Read FRPS on August 24, 2020 at 10:31

This is appalling and depressing news. Our photographic collections are so important and need to be preserved and seen by the public. We have so much expertise available which is lost when curators are no longer employed. It is also good to have collections in different venues, not just centralised.

I saw the Hardman House in Liverpool pre the National Trust take over, they still have a strong band of volunteers who are very enthusiastic. Groups like this may help to preserve historic collections or buildings, I do hope so, but they do not have the expertise required of curators and we cannot rely on them for the conservation of our national collections. 

Comment by Wilson Laidlaw on August 24, 2020 at 8:39

I regret that the proposed moves are symptomatic of the views of many museums and cultural heritage organisations, that they are very inward looking and over-protective of any outsider viewing or researching any of their stored items. They seem to lose sight of their original purpose, which was to protect and maintain history for the benefit of the public not themselves or their circle. If items are stored away long term, they will inevitably deteriorate, on the out of sight; out of mind basis and are of no benefit to the public. If the National Trust are not prepared to display their photographic collection, then perhaps it should be taken away from them and given to a another body who will conserve, restore and display this collection. 

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