There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.
And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.
Luke 16:1 – 16-2
I published last month a short article in The Conversation [ http://bit.ly/1RdmhpD ] on the breaking up of the holdings of the National Media Museum. Here, with the kind permission of the editors of The Conversation, is the longer version of that article.
Once again, the national provision in the matter of the heritage in photography is in uproar in the United Kingdom. Once again, public moneys are wasted through a failure of joined-up thinking or a coherent forward strategy. The absence of any person or body devoted to lobbying or planning on behalf of the national collection of photographs as a whole is once again felt as a critically damaging lack, and the access to the great collections for the public and for scholars is curtailed as a result.
The particular manifestation of the story this time is the deaccessioning of a number of collections from the National Media Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire, which has proved unable to do them justice. The flagship collection in question is that of the Royal Photographic Society and that is the name that has caught the eye in recent press discussions. The RPS holdings at the National Media Museum are immense: some 270,000 images on every kind of support, going right back to the dawn of photography . There are also 26,000 books and periodicals, 6000 pieces of camera equipment, and much archival material to throw light on all of those. This is by any standards one of the great historical collections of photography worldwide. It shares its likely future — deaccession — with a number of other collections held at the NMeM. These include a number of photographers’ own collections, including those of Lewis Morley, Tony Ray-Jones, Nick Hedges, Zoltan Glass and Walter Nurnberg. These vary in importance, but none of them are trivial holdings. Beyond those, there are also the collection of the immensely distinguished collector Howard Ricketts (who in the 1970s first proposed and held sales of photographic material at Sotheby’s), a collection of some 20,000 prints relating to advertising between the 1920s and 1950s, and the National Media Museum’s own collection of a similar volume. The collections that once were held in the Fox Talbot Museum of material by and relating to the founder of photography himself are also in line for deaccession. This is a radical clear-out for a museum that’s supposed to be interested in photography.
The National Media Museum is (officially) changing its focus to a more educational role concentrating (following an American pattern) upon the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). It is felt that too few students engage with these subjects, leading to a skills deficit in the UK which the government has made it a priority to address. Unofficially, the NMeM is patently in some peril of closure.
The situation has been cooking for some time. The National Media Museum is a daughter house of the Science Museum in London. The Science Museum has to find large savings in its budgets.
As long ago as 5th June 2013, The Guardian reported on the situation 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.”
The recent announcement that a decision had been made and that deaccession of the collections was planned to the Victoria & Albert Museum predictably caused much anguish. A letter of protest sent to the national papers was signed by some 80 established photography professionals (including the present writer).
The outrage has centred on the impoverishment of Bradford and the North of England in favour of a metropolitan cultural holding already rich in photography. The creation of a super-collection at the V&A (which the acquisition of the RPS and its sister collections from the NMeM would most assuredly amount to) is felt prejudicial to the government’s stated interest in devolving culture and economic power to the regions. As long ago as the year 2000, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council developed the policy of Renaissance in the Regions to answer government demands for exactly that. As a national museum and not a regional one, the NMeM fell outside the Renaissance programme. But it was always clear that the policies Renaissance stood for applied a fortiori to the non-metropolitan national museums. The MLA no longer exists, itself a victim of economic cuts. Its responsibilities are included in the portfolio of the overwhelmed and uninspiring Arts Council that operates under near-impossible conditions of finance today.
Indeed, well might shifting great sacks of treasure from the NMeM be seen as a betrayal of the North of England. The more so since the present government has been much given to a rhetorical trope about ‘the northern powerhouse’ it wishes to see develop. But the truth is that the NMeM has been moving away from its original remit as a collections-based museum for many years. It was 2006 when it changed its name from National Museum of Photography Film and Television, and many felt already then that the more nebulous term ‘Media’ was a move away from the collections. The reorganization which accompanied the name change was notable for the redundancy of curatorial experts in the collections. No collection in any new medium has been established since the change, although there was much talk of archiving radio shows, websites and so on.
Another strand of expressed dismay was about the way in which the decision to deaccession had been reached. If the Department for Culture Media and Sport had hoped that it was ‘an operational matter’ for the Science Museum, large interest groups outside did not agree. The present writer has seen a number of papers obtained under Freedom of Information rules which make it plain that although the Trustees of the Science Museum and of the NMeM had been planning the deaccession in detail for some 18 months, they at no stage thought to offer them to any museums other than the Tate and the V&A. A paper by Judith McNicol (Director of People & Culture at the Science Museum Group, and previously director of Change Management) and ascribed to the responsibility of Jo Quinton-Tulloch (Director of the NMeM), prepared for the meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Group of 2nd December 2015 is quite explicit. “The art & cultural photography collections no longer fit with the aspirations of the Museum”, it says in its Introduction. “The two leading museums in this field, the Tate and the V&A, were given the opportunity to express interest in the collections. Both responded enthusiastically…”, it says at paragraph 2.0. We can be sure that they did. Gift horses and mouths come to mind.
The management speak is bland enough. But consider what is being said there:
What kind of museum has no aspiration to hold one of the great international collections in its field? What is the message that sends to the various stakeholders of the museum, including future donors, scholars, local people, partner institutions and many others?
There were other possible solutions to be explored. The City of Bradford has already invested a great deal in the NMeM and might have been able to put together a plan for keeping the collections under its control. The Science Museum’s other daughter house in Manchester, the Museum of Science and Industry, could have taken over the running of the Bradford Museum and savings could have been achieved that way. Not to consider these or any other solutions was a mistake. The public dismay made that plain. The Department of Culture Media and Sport, so silent on the issue for so long, reluctantly got involved at the last moment. It was only on 13th March of this year, long after the announcement of the divestment of the collections had been made, that the Guardian was able to report the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, had agreed to meet Bradford MPs and representatives of the Science Museum to discuss the ‘secret backroom deal’ by which the transfer had been agreed. By then 27,000 people had signed an online petition against the deaccessions.
One of the factors which seems to have gone very little mentioned is that the RPS collection was bought for the National Museum of Photography Film and Television with public funds. The Yorkshire Post was able to report with considerable glee on 7th June 2002 (‘City snaps up world’s best photo collection’ was the headline) that the largest ever Heritage Lottery Fund award for photography of £3.75million had been made, following the award of £342,000 from the National Art Collections Fund, and ‘significant funds’ from the development agency Yorkshire Forward. This funding, the paper was able to say ‘ establishes the medium as a vital part of Britain’s national heritage’. The RPS collections, in other words were purchased. They were purchased at a heavily discounted rate, but they were purchased. Is it not odd for a national museum under the tightest of financial constraints to dispose of substantial assets with no attempt even to affect to acquire value for them?
The V&A is not paying for the deaccessioned material. It is a gift from one museum to another which has been its direct competitor (although also a frequent partner and ally) in the provision of collections in photography to the nation. The National Media Museum is not old – thirty years give or take. It is sad that the vast work of lobbying for it and setting it up and building the holdings and the audience and should so quickly turn into a yard sale. Not even a sale. Just bin bags full of photographic treasures, shipped off to the national attic in the V&A.
It may in the end well be that the V&A will turn out to be the best possible home for the RPS collections and other collections from Bradford. It has promised to make a new gallery available to display that material. But a lot more than a new gallery is going to be required. There is massive task of digitization, of making sure that the Bradford catalogue entries are digitally compatible with the systems used at the V&A. There is conservation work to be done, too. You don’t simply transfer a great collection as you might move an ornament from one shelf to another. Meanwhile, there has been no attempt to transfer the only people who really know these collections thoroughly, the curatorial staff at Bradford, from the donor institution to the recipient. Individual staff negotiations are naturally confidential, but I have heard no suggestion that any single member of staff will move with the collection. This, beyond the personal hardship of redundancy for the people involved, also inevitably implies potentially grave losses of valuable knowledge in the transition.
The V&A may yet — with a great deal of work, from fundraising to rethinking the collections to conservation — absorb this vast extra holding in photography. We can all hope so. It is quite possible that — the betrayal of the North notwithstanding — the outcome will be positive. But there is no very sure guarantee of that. Certain it is at the very least that the collections will enter into store in London for a very long time, probably at Blythe House, the peculiar outpost of the V&A in West Kensington. It is a mild irony that Blythe House is used to store material belonging to the Science Museum as well as that belonging to the V&A. But the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement of 2015 declared that Blythe House was itself due to be sold in the interests of cost-cutting. So it is far from clear how that absorption can be made in practice. Simply to have offloaded the stuff and with it the problem may have seemed sensible from within the boards of the Science Museum and the National Media Museum, but from the wider point of view of the entire national collections in photography, it seems less clear. It may be that there are two betrayals involved, not one. The betrayal of the North and the promises for culture in the regions is one. But there is also involved something very close to a betrayal of photography itself.
It is depressing that this saga comes so soon after the closure of the archive services at Birmingham Library, already a very grave blow to the national collections in photography. And with the ministry all-but washing its hands of the problems, so long as the cuts it needs to find are found, there seems little likelihood of a careful photographic strategy emerging in time to prevent the next bruising shock, or the one after that. The pressing absence now is of a strategy; and of the visionary people to supply one. It is time that voices in the UK were raised in honour of photography and in its defence. That may be the root of the problem. It is difficult to imagine for comparison a similarly casual and ill-conceived deaccession from the collections of the Tate on Sir Nick Serota’s watch. Senior people at the Science Museum and the DCMS entrusted among other things to care for a good share of the national holdings in photography have fallen short of their responsibilities. They are under huge pressure, mainly financial. We can understand that. But they in turn must understand that the deaccessions add up to another spectacular failure in the management of the national holdings as a whole. Nobody has much spoken yet in terms of resignations in this connection. Yet how else can public acknowledgement be made of the way the whole affair has been handled? And I don’t think it is too late to rethink the deaccessions more steadily and more publicly.
Not by any means all of the nation’s photography takes place in the ambit of the great collections, and nobody would argue that it should. But when one of the truly rare and important accumulations of photography in the world is so casually shunted from one institution to another without proper process, without plan, and without the relevant people to care for it, we can be absolutely certain that the right voices have not been heard to speak on photography’s behalf and that our stewards have not done their work.