30 and Out? The National Media Museum Under Threat

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London.  The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.  Photographed by Kate Elliott

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London. The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.
Photographed by Kate Elliott

There is now no effective state policy for the provision of the culture of photography to the nation. There is today no specialist photography officer at the Department for Culture Media and Sport. There has only ever been one Photography Officer at the Arts Council, Barry Lane, and his tenure finished many years ago. The Arts Council is itself on its knees. Its homologue, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, which was supposed to deal specifically with those institutions that held collections, has recently been abolished. The only serious national touring programme of photographic exhibitions now takes place under the umbrella of the Artist Rooms programme, administered by the Tate from the donation of one man, the art dealer Anthony d’Offay.

No need to go on. Photography exists as the most popular and most important sector of the visual arts in an administrative and institutional framework which has badly let it down over many years. It suffers from serial widespread long-term institutional failure of strategy and of personnel. Small wonder that we have now reached the point where the National Media Museum – which, in spite of its inadequacies, remains the home of a world-class collection of historically important photography – is facing imminent closure.

There should now be a considerable palaver in the UK about the future of the dependent museums of the Science Museum. These include the former National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford, whose shift of emphasis away from its collections was clearly signalled when it was restructured and renamed the National Media Museum, a change endorsed by (the then) Culture Minister David Lammy and former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, who said:

“Twenty-first century Britain needs a media museum reflecting the importance in all our lives of TV, radio, film, photography and of course the internet, new media. There’s only one place to have it – and that’s Bradford.”

That was then.

Among many others The Guardian reported the situation on 5th June 2013 in these terms:

“The Science Museum Group may be forced to shut one of its regional museums as a result of the government’s squeeze on budgets, its director has claimed. In addition to major cuts in funding for the Science Museum in London, Ian Blatchford said one of the group’s outposts may have to close its doors.”

The group runs the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the National Railway Museum in York and Bradford’s National Media Museum. Blatchford said the prospect of a further 10% cut in funding meant that one of these would almost certainly have to go.”

Mr. Blatchford made his comments in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4’s World at One. Various BBC News channels on that same day carried this further thought:

“A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome of the Spending Review which will be announced later this month.

He said: “This is an operational matter for the Science Museum Group who has [sic] to address a large projected operating deficit from 2014 onwards and is [sic] assessing a range of options to address this situation.””

Beyond the laughably poor grammar coming out of the ministry of culture, a number of things are pretty clear. There is obviously going to be a huge shortfall in centrally provided income to the Science Museum Group. It is also obvious that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is not in a position to defend its dependent institutions. The weakest ministry of culture in Europe seems quite happy to stand by and let the various funding axes fall. Culture is a major industry in the UK, but its lobbyists are assumed to be feeble luvvies and are brushed aside by competing claims on government funds. Cultural policy in Britain is made on the hoof and unmade on a whim.

In that context, photography suffers, yet it should not.

Photography, which touches everything and everyone, easily meets all those criteria of social utility which were the Blairite vision of how culture should pay its way in society (and which the present government has inherited faute de mieux). Photography is our literacy and our art. Photography in any institution appeals to the full diverse range of population. It is accessible to all (from junior Key Stages in the curriculum to adults, and from every profession or walk of life). Photography is transnational and transcultural and doesn’t necessarily take place in any one language. It carries information and opinion equally, and represents the shared vocabulary of all of us. Photography includes high art and low commerce, and to be intrigued by photographs means potentially to be interested by anything at all. Photography is the only medium whose history is a history of continuous boom: photography has moved into every field, and convulsed each. It is also a remarkably cheap medium to treat, being relatively unaffected by transfer to digital formats in which everybody can store and send its products.

Photography, in other words, is the one cultural activity that presses all the buttons. Let alone its fundamental cultural importance, as the forerunner of cinema and digital imaging and everything visual in between. Many of the governing ideas of our society were first articulated in photography. Photography is demotic and vernacular and at the same time high-art and high tech.

Photography showed you things but didn’t always explain them: it was in photography that it first became possible to be exposed to any kind of argument without analysis. A thousand things developed from that. Take the sound bite, for example, so standard a part of our media-habituated world – what is the sound bite? A photograph in which visual is translated into verbal. We learnt to accept such things and work with them in photographs. Same for a hundred tics and tropes in half a dozen other fields. Photography is fundamental to a host of large industries which have developed around it: fashion, pop music, video gaming, even the tourist industry and sport… Photography is one of the engines that have pulled us out of the age of manufacture into the service age. It’s as important as that.

Photography is the fundamental core of contemporary art, too: you could put it in a nutshell and say that those artists who haven’t run to it, have run from it.

So the already weak provision to the nation of institutional coverage of this most vital – and most popular – field is threatened.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the foundation of the Bradford Museum. When it opened, many people questioned its location because culture was then even more concentrated in London than now. But they also questioned whether there should be any such museum at all: photography was shown much less than it is now, and many wondered whether there was either demand or reason for such a museum. And photography was from the beginning the core of the museum. Its first Head was Colin Ford, perhaps the only UK curator of photographs who one could have imagined at the Harry Ransom Center or MOMA or the Bibliothèque Nationale or any of the other really proper photographic collections. As somebody (not from photography circles) said to me the other day: “The thing about Colin Ford is that we all knew who he was. I haven’t a clue about any of them that followed.” When Ford opened Bradford, it had something like eight galleries, showing everything from emerging photographers to the most established. It was in an odd place as far as London culture-vultures were concerned, but it really was the national museum of photography. After his departure, a lot of that concentration was diluted.

Let us recall that the absorption of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collections by the Bradford Museum in 2003, after a relatively rapid negotiation, was the moment at which the Bradford collections in photography became truly world class. But it was also the moment at which the policy division between the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum was most visibly and publicly flouted. Officially still today, the V&A holds the national collections of the art of photography, and the National Media Museum the national collection of photography, which also includes art photography. Photography not being a discipline that lends itself particularly to tight categorisations of this kind, it has long been obvious that there are large and problematic areas of overlap. Still, once the RPS collection went to Bradford, it was then abundantly clear that (in photography, at least) the great museum fiefdoms were fighting each for itself and that no overarching policy existed to control them.

One of the main players in the transfer of the collections from the RPS to Bradford was Amanda Nevill, who became Head of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (as it then was), after being head of the Royal Photographic Society. Many other names are involved in this story, but let us just hold on to that one.

It might be a good time to ask some very old-fashioned questions: Cui bono? Who benefits if the National Media Museum should close down?

As Doris Day put it:

Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera.

Still, let me draw out a plausible map of what might happen, and then let us ask the people in charge of our cultural institutions to explain the position.

The National Media Museum has been for a certain time in trouble. You could argue that it has done a miraculous job for the city of Bradford, acting as the main cultural focus in a city that badly needed something of the sort. But it has done a less good job for photography nationally, even if that is for reasons which are partly not the Museum’s own responsibility: chronic underfunding; lack of a resounding mission; lousy train services from elsewhere in the country (making it hard to get to); diminished curatorial staff and diminished spend on the collections, with a correspondingly high proportionate spend on fund-raising and marketing and all the ancillary functions of a museum. The position has grown so bad that the Museum has advanced a long way in its plan to open an out-station devoted to showcasing the photography collection in the Science Museum in London; a peculiar plan whereby the daughter-house will implant a branch within the mother-house. This, as I have written elsewhere, [ Photomonitor : Media Space at the Science Museum, by Francis Hodgson ] is a very public admission of the failure of one major part of its remit. The great collections of photography in Bradford’s care are not being properly shown to the nation.

But consider what might plausibly now happen.

The National Railway Museum in York and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester both serve cities with a far heavier lobbying punch than Bradford. Manchester is arguably the founding city of the industrial revolution, and York has built up a huge tourist industry in the business of heritage and history. Neither will give up their museums easily. It will look possible to concoct an argument by which Bradford loses its own simply because one of the three has to go under the cuts.

If that should happen, it will become necessary to rehouse the collections. Manchester is the city to which large parts of the BBC has been moved over recent years. Granada was always the best commercial franchise; add the BBC and it becomes plausible to think of Manchester as a specialist television town. What could be easier than to make the argument that the television collections from Bradford should go there, and even perhaps to the Museum of Science and Industry?

Similarly for film. The BFI (British Film Institute) already exists, is in London, and would perhaps happily stake a claim to accommodate the relevant Bradford collections. Although the BFI has been rationalising its technical collections.  It set a line in the sand when it closed the Museum of the Moving Image in 1999 and might be unwilling to reverse that decision. But the Director of the BFI is that same Amanda Nevill, mentioned above, who might welcome with open arms a chunk of the collection she better than almost anyone knows the value of.

There remain the great historic photographs collections. The Media Museum has been inching towards London anyway, in the proposed ‘Media Space at the Science Museum’. How convenient would it be for the whole collection to have to move back to London, where the Media Space is already earmarked for its display?

No more talk of the supposedly vast cultural importance of archiving websites and social media and so on. But the British Library is quietly making great strides on that score anyway, as it quite properly should.

Get rid of the Bradford Museum, to the great detriment of the city of Bradford, but to large savings, and suddenly the national collections under its control fall into convenient slots, separated by medium.

You know what? It could all have been planned that way.

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to see UK arts administrators competent enough to have engineered such a complicated dance towards an outcome. It is more likely the standard UK fare of botched job and muddling along and yielding to pressure. This much is clear: the UK national photographic institutions are in a mess which is likely to get a whole lot worse. Whatever happens, it shouldn’t happen without proper debate and without proper planning.

Fox Talbot – Buy Now While Stocks Last

On 11 December the National Heritage Memorial Fund Trustees meet to discuss the possible acquisition by the Bodleian Library in Oxford of one of the last major archives of material by the British pioneer of photography William Henry Fox Talbot still to remain in private hands. Public money is short and there are many strong demands upon it.  But this may well be a case in which it is right to jump the queue.

William Henry Fox TalbotAdiantum Capillus-Veneris (Maidenhair Fern)<br /><p class=Photogenic Drawing Negative, probably from 1839.
From Hans P. Kraus, Sun Pictures Catalogue 21, Item 1. New York 2012.” src=”http://francishodgson.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/fox-talbot-maidenhair-fern2.jpg?w=242″ width=”242″ height=”300″ />
William Henry Fox Talbot
Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (Maidenhair Fern)
Photogenic Drawing Negative, probably from 1839.
From Hans P. Kraus, Sun Pictures Catalogue 21, Item 1. New York 2012.

The United Kingdom has lagged badly behind other states in its attention to its photographic heritage. In the United States, in other European countries provision for early photography in national collections and collections of national standing has been an established priority for far longer than in the UK. A number of deplorable outcomes should over the years have been avoided and the UK still displays a culpable lack of informed strategic thinking in regard to photographic heritage. The failure many years ago to secure the Gernsheim collection for the nation, for example, still ranks as a major blemish on the conduct of the national holdings in photography, and there have been smaller failures to secure estates or possible collections with disturbing regularity.Neither the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, nor the (now defunct) Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (only finally abolished in May of this year) has ever put together any kind of coherent strategy for the maintenance and exploitation of the national photographic collections, and the Arts Council has over many years been tentative at best. There has only ever been one person, Barry Lane, to hold the post of Photography Officer at the Arts Council. Photographic policy has largely been left to individual curators and directors of institutions, and the lack of joined up thinking, of shared ambition and agreed targets, has long been damaging for the national holdings in photography. National strategic plans for culture have come and gone with no mention of photography or only the most cursory.  In recent years, the tone has been set by the seemingly constant thinning of the ranks of curators in a number of institutions.

In regard to the single issue of conservation, for example, the national collections are now deplorably behind. There are (quite simply) in Britain too few photographic conservators engaged by the nation working upon the national holdings.  When, in 2003, Liz Martin, the admired conservator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, died unexpectedly, her position was “frozen” and no successor has to date been appointed.  This is a scandal; no other word will do.  The Victoria & Albert holds the national collection of the art of photography;  that it should be thought acceptable that this world-class collection should survive without the attentions of a single full-time specialist conservator is an absurdity. Britain, by virtue of its pioneering position in photography, holds a large volume of early material of importance.  That material is deteriorating through time and the backlog merely of maintenance work that needs to be done will be too large to recover.

There should be set up a national institute of photographic conservation, and it should act upon the entire national collection irrespective of where individual items are housed.  The institute should promote world-class research, and should be expected to be of the standard of the best in the world.

This is a glaring lacuna, and there are others.

Yet, in the absence of a shared strategy and coherent public leadership, a number of individual institutions have made a creditable effort to catch up.  Very noticeable, for example, is the emergence of two great libraries as photographic centres of excellence.  Both the Birmingham City Library and the British Library in London have grasped that incredible photographic riches have been held and filed under categorizations other than primarily photographic.  Both are making large efforts to make that material available.  Birmingham is working on a strategy of positioning itself as a ‘hub’ among photographic institutions, and will have world-class facilities for study and display of photographs when its new building is completed.  Photography, that is to say, is already at the heart of Birmingham’s plans for cultural provision over the next generation.

That is so plainly the right direction that it should be emulated elsewhere: photography provides all of those cultural benefits that the arts have so long been asked to prove.  Photography is accessible to all, promotes diversity, has a tremendous role in education and life-long learning.  And photographs have the advantage of transmissibility: they are less changed by reproduction (including reproduction on screen) than many media.

The new provisions for research, whereby senior curators in museums can in the right circumstances now have the right to supervise doctoral research within their departments, add up to a great inducement which has not yet been exploited to the maximum.  Since photography lacks to a remarkable extent the underpinning of sustained scholarship which is taken for granted in other art forms, this will be a useful tool.

The Tate is making great strides in integrating photography into its own collections, after years of deliberate neglect.  And less-known but fundamental photographic collections – including the National Monuments, the Imperial War Museum, and a number of others are making improvements, too.

There is, in other words, a tide moving in the right direction.  That the Bodleian should want to show itself, too, capable of holding and handling photographs at the national level is a good thing.  There may be – I am sure there are –  long-term strategic questions as to why the Bodleian should acquire a major holding in Fox Talbot when there are already other good ones at the British Library and the National Media Museum.  But it is surely essential to grasp the opportunity and acquire the archive now.  It will be relatively easy later to institute sharing arrangements or loan agreements or even exchanges of Fox Talbot material designed to rationalise the great holdings.  Easy, that is, assuming that the material has been acquired for the nation in the first place.  Given the good work that is belatedly now being done in the field, it would be crazy in 2012 to repeat the errors of earlier by adding an egregious miss to the catalogue.

No figures have yet been announced, but photography is still (relatively) cheap, too. There is indeed huge pressure on public funds.  But a great holding of historically critical material related to the very earliest days of photography has a call on those funds.