Curators on Skates

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View of the V&A by Bolas & Co., c.1909, V&A E.1128-1989

It’s not often, in the cash-starved world of UK photographic institutions, that there is major good news to celebrate. But yesterday the V&A announced ambitious and yet wholly realistic plans to expand its photographic activities in a range of impressive ways.

The catalyst for the advance was the arrival of the collections of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) at the V&A. The transfer last year of the RPS collections from the Bradford outstation of the Science Museum was shockingly badly handled (mainly by the Science Museum Group itself, but a number of other parties including the Arts Council and the ministry responsible, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, showed some pretty craven lack of leadership, too).

No doubt the tale of the former National Museum of Photography, Film and Television may need to be revisited at another time. But for now, the Media Space, the Science Museum’s attempt to get London attendance figures for its Yorkshire collections, will have the daily humiliation as it flounders of seeing its neighbour across the street make giant leaps forward in the business of collection-centred museum activity in photography.

There was a bit of a fuss about the abandonment (in effect) of the museum in Bradford. The V&A was presented with an incomparable opportunity to step up in the rankings of world photography collections, but it would need a certain investment to do that properly, and investment, in the UK cultural world, has often been the stumbling block. I hope and I also suspect — as one of those who fussed — that the to-do actively helped, in allowing the curators and developers of the new plans for photography at the V&A in laying out their claim for a chunk of the necessary money to point to obvious public concern.

Whatever the exact sequence, the arrival of the RPS collections has had a galvanic effect on the photography department at the V&A. And for that, credit must go first of all to Martin Barnes, the Senior Curator, who has quite obviously seen a chance and gone for it, big time. It was not, as he put it to me, up to him to judge the manner in which the RPS collections were allowed to leave the hands of the Science Museum Group. But when offered one of the great photographic collections in the world, he needed no second invitation. Why would he look such a gift horse in the mouth? There have been other important moments in UK museum management in the field of photography; but I have no memory of a department making such a well-judged expansion so very fast. In the terms of the usual shuffling trudge from report to committee to fund-raisers and back again, this has been a lightning strike. Barnes has done wonders, and he must have been supported at the very highest levels in the museum to be able to move so decisively. What a gift it makes for incoming museum Director Tristram Hunt: a major expansion in a field popular with and important to the public, dropped at his feet with nothing for him to do but smile politely and bask in the applause.

The incoming RPS collection of some 270,000 photographs compares to the roughly 500,000 the V&A already holds. For comparison, the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York gives its photography collection as some 25,000 ‘works’; that of the Bibliothèque Nationale gives its own (supported by legal deposit) as nearly five million ‘items’. These numbers are not necessarily like for like, but they give orders of magnitude. The RPS collection goes far back in the history of photography and includes early material of great significance. It is complemented by many artefacts and documents which are not photographs, including for example, several thousand cameras.

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A previous exhibition of photography in the two galleries which will now again be dedicated to its display. Image courtesy V&A.

This is what is going to happen. The upstairs gallery of photography at the V&A is, in a first phase, going to double in size by expanding into the gallery parallel to it. A highly visible (not so say gaudy) piece of architectural branding, in the form of a ‘periscope’ full of cameras, will sign it from the ground floor – with an effect I imagine to be based upon the huge central column of books in the British Library, part storage and part advertising.

The V&A has already (!) equipped a new archive with fancy rolling shelves and climate control, adjacent to the Prints and Drawings Study Room, so the long tradition of open access to photographs will not only continue but be actively enhanced. I’m always amazed at how few Londoners avail themselves of the chance to see original photographs simply by turning up and asking for the box to be brought (you do need an appointment but you do not need to be recommended or in any particular research position); but for those who want to use it, that service is going to be improved.  It can’t be used less than the equivalent Insight space at Bradford, an echoing cavern of research not being done and pictures not being seen.

The first phase will also include a space for screenings and a clever space where the perpetual scanning that any modern museum must do will be on view to the public, so that we can see the increase in access to the collections being facilitated before our very eyes.

All of this will be ready by 2018; that, in the world of museums, is time-travel. You have to imagine your curators getting out of their grey flannel bags and tweed coats, and jumping onto rollerblades.

After that, a further second phase expansion will add a library, a sensible addition given how much of the dissemination of photographs has always been through books. This one will not merely be a collection; it is specifically intended from the outset to facilitate browsing on open stacks, so that pictures can do the work they have always done, of jumping out at us from unexpected angles. Further rooms, including teaching rooms and a darkroom for photographers-in-residence will complete a suite which will when complete add up to the entire first floor of the North-East wing of the V&A and represent in total something like four times the existing space devoted there to photography.  The expansion of activities that will radiate from this space will likely be on a logarithmic scale.

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View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3294- 1954

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View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3346-1954

This is an incredible achievement. It is being done for £8m. This is obviously a large sum, but not in the context in which it sits. The National Army Museum, for example, announced a few days ago (March 2017) that its re-development had cost £23.75m. The Financial Times cited £83m as the cost of the new Design Museum in the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.

The RPS collections themselves were purchased in 2002 for the National Museum of Photography Film and Television with public funds, including the largest ever Heritage Lottery Fund Award for photography of £3.75m and £342,000 from the National Art Collections Fund. Since the V&A has paid not a single penny for the collection itself, we can see that in the context of a (favourable) 2002 valuation not far short of £5m, a 2017 cost of £8m to make the best possible use of the collection comes to look like very fair value for money. (The figure includes, I understand, some of the costs of digitization, although these are hard to quantify because they come under general costs the V&A already underwrites). In the context of the overall re-jigging of the V&A under the FuturePlan label, it’s a bargain. My memory is that the funding target to enable the London Photographers’ Gallery to move to its new building in 2012 was £8.7m; the cost of the V&A’s expansion compares with that.

All of this presages not only a world-class photographic research and display centre, but it also seems to come hand in hand with a steady rethink of what the museum can do. In particular, the V&A announces on the same day that the immensely distinguished historian of photography Professor Elizabeth Edwards has been appointed Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at the V&A. At the same time, the Royal College of Art and the V&A join forces from September 2018 to launch a new history of photography course under the umbrella of the History of Design MA program at the RCA. The photography department, in other words, is taking the moment of its physical expansion as the moment of its virtual expansion, too. To seek to act as the focus of scholarship in the disciplines whose artefacts it cares for is precisely one of the things the museum should be doing, and these cascaded announcements suggest hope for a steady stream of scholarly material to come.

There is obviously (there always is, nowadays) talk of an expanded online offering in photography from the museum, reaching people off the site, or interested in things other than those programmed for any particular time. Also off-site, there are ideas of touring shows already in the air, in a reprise of the lamented Circulation Department of the V&A, which fell in a distant round of earlier cuts. The success of the Artists’ Rooms project by which (in England) the Tate manages the huge donation of Anthony D’Offay, has brought the obvious benefits of touring shows back into the forefront of planners’ minds.  There is going to be a boost to the Prints & Drawings Study Room. There will be space for more events across a range of types, from screenings to lectures to demonstrations and so on.

The new library will obviously have to work well with the National Art Library, which is not only in the same building, but actually forms a part of the same department – the Word And Image Department of the museum. But a new browsing library in photography can only serve to increase the numbers using the existing library; the photographs department was in part set up by the re-classification of objects in the National Art Library, so these close ties go back a very long way. In the same way, the rehoming of the collections will go some way to patching up the historical split across Exhibition Road between the scientific and art aspects of photography. Some individual artefacts will actually be reunited in the V&A, having been held together in the South Kensington Museum before it was split into the component parts we know. It is possible to express the hope that the commercial and industrial aspects of photography will not be left behind in the re-shuffle, aspects which have traditionally fared less well in the museum context.

There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s encouraging and welcome. Martin Barnes talks in the press release that announces the new Photography Centre of a “dramatic reimagining of the way photography is presented at the V&A.” He’s moved an elderly and sometimes rheumatic institution at quite remarkable speed in the direction he wants it to go. Just getting this expanded photography department to happen has taken strong leadership; he’ll have a lot of fun with it once it’s running. And as a result, so will we.

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Full of Mind

“Of Mr.Rejlander’s pictures (for such we may justly call them), we have no hesitation in saying that they are full of beauty and full of mind.”

Anonymous reviewer in the Art Journal for 1868

 

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

The National Portrait Gallery in London has recently acquired these very different pictures from an album of the mid-1860s (holding both well-known and unknown studies) by Oscar Gustav Rejlander after a successful export block. The watermarks you see on the scans are those of the auctioneer Morphets of Harrogate who sold the album for £70,000 in late 2014. The estimate had been £7000-£10,000. The necessary funds to cancel the proposed sale and make it instead a public purchase were raised with the help of the Art Fund and of National Portrait Gallery supporters.

 

 

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

This modest little story is presented here as something of a mild inoculation against the fever of museum closures or failures in UK photography. We have seen the absurd mistreatment of the Birmingham Library archives in photography, the grave mishandling of the transfer of a number of collections from the National Media Museum in Bradford to the Victoria & Albert Museum and a number of other failures.   We are told to expect the closure of the expensive Media Space in London almost before its fancy paint has had time to dry. The national collections in photography are, to say the very least, not receiving the very highest level of care and attention in the period we are living through.

In that context, it is salutary to see the ordinary work of national collections proceeding in an orderly way. An important album comes up for sale. Its value to scholarship is patent. The export is halted pending an opportunity to raise the necessary funds, and when those funds are quite properly made available, the album is bought for the nation.

No doubt there is a very disappointed overseas buyer. That buyer may be a private collector, or perhaps more likely, an agent acting on behalf of another institution. Whoever she is or represents, that buyer feels (as buyers always do in these circumstances) that her cup has been unfairly dashed from her lips. That buyer will feel that she had found the thing, had the courage to bid high, and should be allowed to march off with it. We can sympathize.

At the same time, if due process has been observed, we can also feel that the greater right has prevailed, and be very glad that the album is now in a place where schoolchildren can see it from time to time, and where scholars can use it to change once again our perceptions of Victorian art, of photography, of the history of dress and of dressing up, of social mores and much, much more. One of the things about national collections is that no generation can know what will be of interest to future scholars, so you carefully keep things whose value may not be obvious against the time when someone will scrutinize them from a perspective that we cannot predict today. That costs money, and therefore needs to be justified against other claims on the public purse. But when it is done right, it is a civilized process and one that can be applauded.

Phillip Prodger, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery was quoted (in one of those bland quotes people are asked to produce at such times) as saying the album “transforms the way we think about one of Britain’s great artists”. It remains for Dr. Prodger to show us the early fruits of the scholarship he now has the opportunity to turn to this acquisition. We should look forward fairly promptly to a display of the album, washed in the light of that scholarship. That, on a small scale, is the normal functioning of a properly handled national collection, something British people interested in photography may be forgiven for imagining they no longer had.

 

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

 

 

I followed the story of the Rejlander Album on the excellent British Photographic History blog, which has covered it from before the auction sale through to the successful incorporation into the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Persons interested in the subject are well advised to subscribe to this free source of impressively curated information.

The full Rejlander album is still visible thanks to Morphets Auctioneers who took the trouble to scan it and still have it open to view. Again, this seems a normal proceeding at that juncture where the commercial world of art and antiques meets the scholarly world of museum collections and of those who use them.   It even might be good if the Harrogate auction house could be persuaded, in a small further step, to keep the scans permanently available, perhaps if necessary by transferring them to the National Portrait Gallery’s website. That would represent a trivial cost but a non-trivial commitment to scholarship. No doubt their respective information technology systems may have difficulty in corresponding, but the idea seems a good one and one that might become routine with a little bit of tweaking.

 

Media Space at The Science Museum

I don’t normally simply cross-post here from material I have written elsewhere.But here is a piece which might well have appeared first on these pages.
I apologise to those who are subscribed to both this blog and to Photomonitor, but I hope that referring from here to there will increase the debate on an important development in UK photographic institutions. With my thanks to the editor of Photomonitor.

http://bit.ly/XqLgWi