Insect Wings, c.1840, William Henry Fox Talbot © National Media Museum
Big changes are afoot within the United Kingdom’s photography collections with the move of the Royal Photographic Society’s archive from the National Media Museum in Bradford to become part of the photography collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This archive constitutes around a sixth of the National Media Museum’s collection, and once the move is complete it will make the Victoria and Albert Museum’s photography holdings ‘the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world.’ There are two ways to read this I suppose, one is that given the remit of the Science Museum group (which the National Media Museum is part of) and the remit of the Victoria and Albert Museum, this change maybe makes some sense in that it might allow both institutions to more clearly focus and specialise. Although that argument is also a little problematic, since particularly with very early pioneers like Fox Talbot, the line between the scientific and artistic aspects of his photography is a blurry one at best, and Pete James is right in making this point about photography more generally. How useful is it to hive off the medium into such polarised, but also rather clumsy categories?
It’s also a setting back of the clock, since parts of the collection which will move was originally held in London at the South Kensington Museum in the nineteenth century, although considering this was the height of empire and a time when London was the metropole not only of Britain but of much of the planet, I’m not sure how much this is a precedent that advocates of the move should be harking on. And that’s because many are rightly crying foul that this is another example of London, the metropolitan heart of the UK, eating up collections, archives and funding which would benefit other parts of the country far more. London is a city already bloated with culture, museums and collections and whatever prestige the move might mean for the city and for the Victoria and Albert Museum can’t be anything comparable to what it would have meant for Bradford to have it remain there, to say nothing of the wider region. Likewise returning to the idea of monolithic national collections for things like photography might be economically appealing but it would seem to me like something of a step back to the nineteenth century and the imperial ambitions which first gave rise to many of the South Kensington museums.
It’s also something of an irony that a collection like this is being removed from a regional museum partly because of funding issues and relocated to a museum currently facing accusations of undergoing a stealth privatisation through its new recruitment policies which apparently allow the Victoria and Albert Museum to hire new staff on much less secure terms. If the new home of the Royal Photographic Society collection is taking an increasingly hard-nosed financial attitude, does that pose worrying questions about the institutions commitment to creating long term posts to conserve and manage the collection, or about the future accessibility or maintenance of this material. The example of the collections at the Library of Birmingham which has experienced savage cuts in accessibility and jobs will be foremost in many people’s minds. The model employed by the Science Museum group whereby this and other enormously important photographic material would reside in Bradford but be available for exhibition in London at the Science Museum’s dedicated Media Space seemed like a very strong one, which emphasised the benefits of distributing culture across institutions and throughout the UK, while at the same time making that culture available to audiences across multiple regions. This change I suppose throws this approach into doubt, despite it being a model that institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the country more generally would have benefited greatly from rolling out more widely.