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.
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.
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.