British photographic history

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Do UK museums take photography seriously?

Apollo magazine poses the question do UK museums take photography seriously and provides a useful survey of how photography is looked at in the UK, with comment from Martin Barnes, Colin Ford and Michael Pritchard. The question is contextualised around the move of the RPS Collection from Bradford to London.

Image: Shop sign, rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire, Paris, (c. 1900), Eugène Atget. © Victoria and Albert Museum

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Comment by Richard Sullivan HonFRPS on May 24, 2017 at 13:54

I have some sense about British Museums, but more of those in the U.S. There may be some historic anxiety among curators as to whether photography is an art or not over its technological basis, and we can add as the article points out, a photograph's shifting meaning. However, there is a problem, and is one that creates considerable difficulty, is its popularity with the public. Only King Tut and the Impressionists can compete with photography here in the US, and I suspect this is also the case in Britain. 

It's not if a photography show is mounted, that no one will come, photography almost always overwhelms everything else -- a turnstile spinner if you will, and that creates tension among staff. A number of years ago the LA County Museum of Art had two major shows, one of statues and artwork showing images of Buddha, and the other, a photography show. What was shown in photography, escapes me now, though I believe it was work from Leonard Vernon's collection. The Buddha show was a major curatorial effort and mounted at a considerable expense. The photography show was much less of an effort. The Buddha exhibit took up a major portion of space in the museum and the photography exhibit took up a modest room. Needless to say, one outstripped the other in attendance and it's unnecessary to point out which.

I have served on the advisory board of the Museum of Photographic Art in San Diego California and as a board member of the now defunct Photography Council of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I've heard more than once a curator say something to the effect of, "We can't stick our heads up too high," when the issue of a photography show was discussed. Of course, in a situation like at a photography museum like MOPA, sticking one's head up too high is not an issue, but in a generic art situation, it is.

MOCA in Los Angeles had de-siloed its curatorial staff. They only had "art" curators and not curators were not designated as to specialty. This created a somewhat opposite effect as traditional forms of photography were being ignored. That's a long story in itself but that led eventually to the withdrawal of the Photography Council.

Granted, shows should not be determined purely on a popularity basis though I know enough to say that it is internally important to the museum, whether it is stated or not. 

Comment by Alex Boyd on May 22, 2017 at 10:46

An excellent article, however it would have been good to perhaps have a less England-centric view of collecting and exhibition. I feel that reaching out to curators north of the border, or how things are done in Wales etc would have made for some interesting contributions. 

Comment by Robert Alexander Albright on May 20, 2017 at 20:56
A brilliant article in Apollo Magazine. It explains the tortuous story of photographic curatorship in UK museums and why there is continuing tension between the artistic and scientific dimensions of the medium.

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