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.
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.