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April 2016

Vol. 158 / No. 1357

Photography and museums

Photography has been a latecomer to museums, despite the huge public appetite for it. For many years photographs have been inside museums in many departments, but mostly they have been regarded as documentary or educational items, adjuncts to other museum objects or research tools for collecting practices. True, the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum), founded the year that photo­graphy was invented, acquired its first photographs in 1852 and held its first photography exhibition in 1858. In 1862 ­photography was identified as ‘an independent art’ at the South Kensington Museum during the course of London’s Inter­national Exhibition. But gradually a hiatus developed and interest in contemporary photography lapsed until 1964, when Carol Hogben, Head of the Circulation Department which toured exhibitions, began to acquire contemporary photographs for touring, particularly to colleges. He also mounted a Cartier-Bresson exhibition in 1969 which is said to have changed the climate of opinion about photography in Britain. In the preceding period, the Museum’s photographs had been housed in the library and were identified not by photographer but mostly by location, site or subject-matter. But in 1977 the ­Photographic Collection was formally transferred from what was now called the National Art Library to the newly titled department, initially called the Department of Prints, Drawings & Photographs and Paintings, but later simplified to Prints, Drawings and Paintings.

Under this new dispensation and the directorship of Roy Strong, the Museum embarked on a ten-year programme of major photographic acquisitions. A pioneering curator, formerly in the Circulation Department, Mark Haworth-Booth, who had assisted the Arts Council with the touring exhibition ‘From Today Painting is Dead’: The beginnings of Photography, which started at the V. & A. in 1972, and who in 1975 had invited Bill Brandt to select The Land: twentieth-century landscape photo­graphy, which introduced British audiences to classic ­modern photographers, both American and French, successfully applied for a new post, and become the V. & A.’s first curator of ­photography. Haworth-Booth did much to build up the V. & A.’s collection of photography and mounted a major exhibition of Don McCullin’s work in 1981, the photographer generously giving the whole contents of the exhibition – 120 prints – to the collection. Haworth-Booth has also been active as an historian, his major publication, Photography: an independent art (1997), tracing the history of the V. & A.’s photographic ­collection from 1839 to 1996.1

The gradual growth of interest in photography in museums has yet to be properly investigated. In the first half of the twentieth century New York led the way, with Stieglitz and Edward Steichen remaining vital presences. MOMA began to collect photographs in the 1930s, gaining a photography department in 1940. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, did not treat photography as an independent discipline until 1992 when its Department of Photographs was set up; and ­London’s Tate appointed its first curator of photography only in 2009. Yet in the 1970s photography had played a significant role in the uncovering of black history and in feminist or ­postcolonial studies as it increasingly came to be valued as a ­subtle and powerful conveyor of meanings. But uncertainty over its status, originality, durability and purpose remain: is it art, journalism, information or science? Insights into these ­tensions abound in Photographs, Museums, Collections: between art and ­information (2015),2 the first set of case studies exploring the collection and use of photographs in museums, its editors Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton pointing out that the Journal of the History of Collections, now some thirty years old, has never published an article on a photographic collection. What photography seems to need at this moment is, not further conceptualisation, but consolidation and more detailed attention to photographic collections, both private and public.

The new ubiquity of photography needs reckoning with when it comes to museum display. In an age of smart phones, social media and photo-sharing platforms, everybody has a ­camera. Today photographs are mostly viewed on screen and are readily shared. By comparison, conventional museum displays, in which photographs are neatly framed and hung in rows or clusters, can have a deadening effect, even in such innovative shows as Tate Modern’s Performing with the Camera (to 12th June), which explores the creative relationship between ­photography and performance. It may be invidious to mention one of MOMA’s most famous exhibitions, Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, from 1955, which created a dynamic three-dimensional environment, employing some five hundred ­photographs by 273 photographers, all of whom had to give up their rights as to how their pictures would be used, but an immersive experience remains desirable. Recognition of ­photography’s heterogeneous nature has determined collection policies in museums: now greater flexibility needs to inform the handling of its display.

Certainly photography is coming of age as an aesthetic discipline. It is a very noticeable presence in contemporary art, attracts sophisticated criticism, and is well served by the cult for photobooks and by Martin Parr’s three-volume The Photobook: a history.3 Moreover its professional infrastructure is now very strong. In London this spring five major photographic exhibitions have opened,4 among them a major retrospective devoted to the work of Paul Strand. Meanwhile around the world, some 120 annual or biennial photography events take place. The usual ­format in cultural capitals is a gathering of international galleries and publishers of photography books, but elsewhere the aims can be more diverse. In Nigeria, for instance, since 2010, a month-long International Arts Festival of Photography has been held in Lagos, reclaiming public spaces by means of exhibitions, ­workshops, presentations as well as large-scale prints exhibited outdoors, and engaging the public with historical and contemp­orary aspects of Africa’s multi-faceted story. Its theme for this year will be ‘Rituals and Performance: Inherent Risk’. Meanwhile Paris and New York remain the lead cities with regard to the ­promotion of photography, but London is catching up fast. In 2015 Photo London came into existence, and its return to ­Somerset House in May of this year has attracted, among others, Hans Krauss, New York’s leading photography dealer. The ­Photographers’ Gallery in London remains a major hub and since 2006, when it moved into its O’Donnell and Tuomey building, its lively programme has explored and tested the limits of its site.

In 2013, the government spent £4.5 million creating Media Space at the Science Museum as a London portal for the ­collections of the National Media Museum in Bradford. Surprising, therefore, is the news that at the end of this year Media Space will close. Bradford’s National Media Museum Group began life in 1983, under the Science Museum, as the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. During its first decade it attracted eight million visitors, then more than any other museum in England outside London. There are eleven national collections of photography in Britain, and many others of national importance, such as that in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Nevertheless, Bradford’s new museum, under its founding Director, Colin Ford, came to be regarded as the first national museum in the world dedicated to the collecting and presentation of both the science and art of photography.  Admittedly it had been preceded by the Finnish Museum of Photography, founded 1969, but this museum has a very different remit – to promote and foster Finnish art and culture. As a national museum of photography, Bradford’s became the exemplar in this field, and it is the starting point for two books currently being written about European photography museums. In its wake, national photographic museums have sprung up in Denmark, Germany, Holland and Hungary. But will Britain, one of the first countries to gain a national museum of photo­graphy, soon be the first to lose it?

The recent decision on the part of the Science Museum trustees, chaired by Dame Mary Archer, to move 400,000 items – photographs, books, periodicals and 6,000 pieces of camera equipment – from the National Media Museum in Bradford to the V. & A. in order to make the latter an ‘international ­photography resource centre’ has caused public outcry. A letter, signed by eighty-three leading cultural figures, among them Don McCullin, David Hockney, Martin Parr and Colin Ford, appeared in The Guardian (7th March 2016), argued that the trustees’s decision represents a backward step in our understanding of visual culture, and that photography in Britain ‘unquestionably needs a national home and a national identity’. The decision to remove from a national museum in the north a major ­segment of its photographic collection seems counter to the present government’s commitment to the ‘northern ­powerhouse’ strategy. In addition, most of the experts in ­photography at Bradford have been made redundant, thereby stripping the museum and region of valuable scholarship.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, observed that national museums wherever ­possible need to support satellite institutions such as the National Media Museum in Bradford or Tate St Ives in Cornwall, and now the Minister, Ed Vaizey, has been drawn into the debate. There is just a hint that the decision to withdraw such a significant tranche from the collection in Bradford may be overturned. But the brouhaha once again draws attention to the absence of any overall government policy with regard to regional public galleries and museums, their purpose and value. Their ‘non-statutory’ designation leaves them vulnerable to harsh ­decisions on the part of local governments in times of cuts, thereby putting the management of their historic collections at risk.

1     M. Haworth-Booth: Photography: an independent art. Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum 1839–1996, Princeton 1997.
2     E. Edwards and C. Morton, eds.: Photography, Museums, Collections: between art and information, London New Delhi, New York and Sydney 2015.
3     M. Parr: The Photobook: a history, London 2004–14.
4     Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century (Victoria and Albert Museum; to 3rd July); Performing for the camera (Tate Modern; to 12th June); Vogue 100 (National Portrait Gallery; to 22nd May); Painting with light: art and photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age (Tate Britain; to 25th September); and Strange and familiar: Britain as revealed by international photographers (Barbican Art Gallery; to 19th June).