Monday, 18 April 2016

From Maidan to Netflix: Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire

The subtitle of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom indicates the stance taken by Evgeny Afineevsky’s 2015 documentary on the astonishing events in Kiev of November 2013 to February 2014.  He traces the escalation from the initial suspension by President Viktor Yanukovych of discussions prior to signing an association agreement with the European Union, prompting peaceful protests and the occupation of the city’s Ma├»dan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square; the passing of draconian legislation to counter the protests and the murderous assaults by the security forces as the confrontations grew uglier; and finally Yanukovych’s undignified flight to sanctuary in Russia leading to the formation of a new government.  Yanukovych made a wise decision to leave because he deserves to appear at The Hague for presiding over this barbarism.

Recorded by 28 camera operators using a variety of equipment, Winter on Fire covers events in the square and other key locations, intercut with interviews by activists given during and after the occupation, and with occasional very brief footage of the wider domestic and international political context.  The focus is the appalling violence inflicted on the demonstrators, making it sometimes hard to watch as the government’s militarised police wield batons and boots on their helpless victims, and later take to shooting them first with plastic bullets then with live ammunition.

In the face of this brutality the square’s occupiers’ sense of purpose remains firm as they face the fascistically-dressed paramilitaries and their hired thug auxiliaries with whatever makeshift weapons are at hand, but most of all with their comradeship and determination to win a better future.  The scenes of heroism and sacrifice cannot leave the viewer unmoved; the visuals were dramatic enough on their own without the need for the intrusive and unnecessarily manipulative dramatic music which was overlaid at times.  The demonstrators display confidence in forming their own ad hoc democratic institutions, sidelining the ineffectual opposition politicians – including Vitali Klitschko – who sought to co-opt the desperate struggle for their own electoral purposes (though Klitschko’s rebuff did not prevent him later becoming mayor of the city).  The film certainly acts as a monument to the people’s unity and indomitable will in the face of seemingly overwhelming force.  However, it also leaves the sense that it is covering familiar territory.

I was fortunate to attend a screening at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge with Afineevsky present for a question and answer session which proved to be as illuminating as what we had just seen.  He rather acted as if Winter on Fire is groundbreaking in capturing Euromaidan as it unfolded, whereas the 93-day protest has been the subject of a number of films already, some of which have been shown in the annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film.  Winter on Fire  is a worthy if flawed addition to the canon, but coming after others on the same subject it feels as if the issues have moved on; in fact the 2015 Cambridge festival showed Serhii Andrushko’s 2014 Post Maidan, which explores the anticlimactic aftermath of the giddy heights of the Maidan occupation.  Perhaps the audience member who asked Afineevsky about the tension between the events depicted in his film, which exhibited such a sense of unity, and the fracturing of the nation which followed (a consequence only briefly touched in in the closing seconds) had this datedness in mind.

Afineevsky has captured some of the variety of those who took part, young and old and from various walks of life, including the significant role of religious leaders, though not those with political affiliations on the far left and right who were directly involved but have been airbrushed here.  When asked about dissenting voices, notably those who supported Yanukovych, he tried to give the impression that the Ukrainian population was overwhelmingly hostile to the President’s actions in distancing the country from closer ties with the EU.  The statistics do not bear that out, as there was widespread support for the competing options of forging ties with Russia or with both Russia and the EU.  To suggest that the situation was unambiguously ‘The People versus Viktor Yanukovych’ is frankly dishonest.  Kiev is not Ukraine.

As an audience member pointed out, even with a flawed electoral process Yanukovych was popular enough to be elected.  The resident in Maidan is Everywhere (2015) complaining about protesters blocking cars is a rare individual in any of the Maidan films in not being fully supportive of the movement against Yanukovych.  It is easy to forget, in marvelling at the numbers involved in the square, how many weren’t there.  In terms of an agenda, it was curious that Afineevsky was accompanied at the Cambridge screening by someone from the Ukrainian embassy, which raises issues about his film’s independence (footage shot from the Berkut police side is included, which possibly came from government sources rather than Afineevsky’s camera operators).  There may be a motive here over and above celebrating the bravery of the Maidan occupiers at a time when the present Ukrainian government in turn is mired in controversy, with a pressing need to stress national unity.

Afineevsky was evasive in many of his responses to question after the Cambridge screening, though to be fair he pointed out he is a filmmaker, not a politician (he has also said in interviews that he is not a journalist, though how one can be a good documentarist without being a journalist at the same time is unclear).  Judging it on its own merits, Winter on Fire is highly polished, as one would expect with Netflix finance involved, and consequently it has received wider distribution than earlier works on the subject which had less marketing clout.  Netflix of course had previously financed The Square, about the 2011 uprising in Egypt which also ended in disappointment.  Winter on Fire deserved its 2016 Oscar nomination (losing to Amy in the documentary feature category), but by concentrating on the highlights it lacked the powerful rawness of Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 Maidan which better captured the boredom of the occupation as well as the visceral action.  More importantly, now that some time has passed one might have expected a broader perspective on those momentous weeks.  Gripping as it is, Winter on Fire’s simplistic narrative and lack of analysis means that it is far from being the last word on Euromaidan.

I’d like to thank Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, part of the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, for arranging this screening, and Evgeny Afineevsky for giving us his time.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Wikipedia and its Prejudices: A Recent Example

Not reliable enough for Wikipedia
Wikipedia has a reputation for displaying bias against certain subject areas, and how it can work was demonstrated to me this week.  On 27 March I received a message on my Wikipedia ‘talk’ page headed ‘Information on forgotten members of the SPR’.  Signed by a ‘JuliaHunter’ (sic), it proceeded without preamble:Have you got any information on some of the original council members of the Society for Psychical Research, such as the electrician Desmond G. Fitzgerald (1834-1905)? See the talk page for the SPR.’

This came as a surprise because I had forgotten I had a Wikipedia talk page.  It dates from when, some years ago, I tinkered with a couple of articles on the site, notably the one on the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  Thanks to my edits being consistently reverted by someone who it seemed to me had a strong desire, allied to obsessive patience, that the article should be as unhelpful as possible, I had abandoned the effort and had not participated in Wikipedia editing since.

It happened that I had come across the name JuliaHunter several days previously when I noticed a new, very brief, Wikipedia page on Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo (1868-1954), described as ‘a Russian psychical investigator and skeptic’.  Compiled by this JuliaHunter, it is entirely inadequate and ignores the lengthy affectionate obituary printed in the May 1954 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR) by ‘W.H.S’ (W. H. Salter), though JSPR papers by the Count are listed.  There was a reason why Salter’s obituary could not be used even if JuliaHunter was aware of it, to which I shall come.

Thinking that JuliaHunter was merely gathering information on early SPR Council members I wrote back, referring to the SPR’s online library, the Psypioneer journal, and various academic books I thought she (assuming the writer was a female, something that is not necessarily the case with an online persona) might find worth looking at for her research.  I was surprised to receive a response which read in part:

‘Thanks for the reply, Unfortunately anything in the SPR journal or the Psypioneer (which I have read) and other parapsychology journals cannot be cited on Wikipedia, because they are not considered reliable sources per WP:FRIND or Wikipedia:RS. Also Wikipedia rules on WP:FRINGE balance forbid this sort of thing, this is a mainstream encyclopaedia that deals with reliable academic sources on such topics. This is why SPR journals or other fringe journals should only be mentioned in the "further reading" sections of articles or cited if they are quoted in secondary independent sources which is rare.

‘I have no problem with citing academic books from the SPR like Alan Gauld's or Archie Roy etc. Academic or scholarly books that can be cited on the history of the SPR are Shane McCorristine, Janet Oppenheim, Roger Luckhurst, Trevor Hamilton etc...’

Hence, in the example above, it was fine for the Wikipedia entry to cite Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo’s own JSPR papers in a further reading section, but it could not draw on Salter’s obituary, even if it was more informative, and authoritative, than the secondary sources upon which the Wikipedia article was based (after all, Salter knew him personally).

There was quite a lot more in JuliaHunter’s reply to me, but I knew that she had not accessed the SPR’s publications; she referred to an item in the SPR’s Proceedings, Fraser Nicol’s ‘The Founders of the SPR’, March 1972, pp. 341-367, in these terms:  ‘In Frazer Nichol's (sic) 1972 SPR paper (I have limited access on Google books) The Founders of the S.P.R, he says…’ before going on to talk about her uncertainty over resignations by Spiritualists from the Society in the 1880s.  She was struggling with Google Books despite Nicol’s paper being available in its entirety – not some ‘snippet view’ – in the SPR’s online library.  Later she sent an update which astonished me:

‘I finally managed to find some of the early spiritualists who resigned over the Eglinton affair, the list of names is as follows: Stainton Moses, Dr. Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton, H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:05, 27 March 2016 (UTC)

‘Do you have an academic book that would qualify as a reliable source (Wikipedia:RS) that mentions the above names that resigned? Oppenheim and other scholars have let us down here by not covering this in detail. Unfortunately we can't use the Nichol paper as it is not a reliable source. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:41, 27 March 2016 (UTC)’

That first paragraph sounded familiar.  Nicol had written the following:

‘Much could be said on this matter, but I need only mention that of 51 S.P.R. members who are known to have had sittings with Eglinton only six resigned: Stainton Moses, Dr Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton (Mrs Sidgwick's most ferocious antagonist), H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. One person who in another sense did retire was Eglinton—into private life.’

So JuliaHunter had managed to track down a list of resignations which must have originated in Nicol’s article, as the individuals are listed in the same order.  It sounds like she had experienced difficulty locating it, though it could have been found in the SPR’s online library in minutes – and I would argue that an editor who feels qualified to create and edit Wikipedia articles on the early history of the SPR should have read it already.  However, it is not good enough for Wikipedia as it appears in a source which is ‘fringe’ and consequently not ‘reliable’.

On the other hand, if Oppenheim et al had not ‘let us down’ and one of them had reprinted Nicol’s list of those who had resigned, it would have been acceptable for inclusion in Wikipedia, coming directly from a scholarly volume, even though the ultimate source and the value of the information would have been exactly the same.  What is particularly ironic is that while the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings are peer-reviewed there is no guarantee that a specialist has checked the contents of a book published by an academic press.  Why is one considered legitimate while the other is not?

As to Nicol being deemed not a ‘reliable source’, I have seen a great deal of private correspondence that passed between Fraser Nicol and his colleague Mostyn Gilbert and can confirm that Nicol was a painstaking scholar (as was Gilbert).  He was steeped in psychical research, unlike a couple of the ‘permitted’ authors JuliaHunter mentions who may have written excellent books but who have moved on to other things and do not possess the range and depth  of knowledge of the subject, gathered during a lengthy career, which he had.  Yet his work does not count even though it is more detailed on this point than the respectable Janet Oppenheim’s The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914.  Oppenheim, it should be added, refers to Nicol’s 1972 paper several times, clearly not sharing JuliaHunter’s reservations about it.

In one of her final messages to me JuliaHunter made a point of demonstrating the trustworthy sources she had employed in her Wikipedia article on CC Massey, then made a suggestion I found easy to ignore:

‘Let me give you an example, I created the page Charles Massey. Do you see what I have done there? Cited academic books, not cited any nonsense. This really shouldn't be up to me creating these pages, but nobody else can be bothered. If you could get anyone on board to create such articles that just cite academic books and don't push any fringe nonsense, then this would be appreciated.’

Leaving aside the condescending tone, I was being invited to ask people to contribute to a project which reflexively considers SPR material, however robust in fact, to be inadmissible ‘nonsense’ in Wikipedia terms.  Why I would do that is beyond me.

I had never heard of JuliaHunter before, but assumed she is new to the field.  It has been suggested to me that she is someone who has posted frequently on Wikipedia under a number of pseudonyms, including ‘GoblinFace’.  This individual swoops in, makes a huge number of changes (and a glance at the edit histories for the SPR and parapsychology articles shows how prolific JuliaHunter has been) then goes quiet before resurfacing later in a new guise.  That identification may or may not be accurate, but I think this episode has provided a small but illuminating insight into Wikipedia’s biased regulations.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

SPR Council Elections April 2016 – Some brief remarks

The Articles of the Society for Psychical Research stipulate that each year six members of its governing Council must stand for re-election, in rotation.  This occurs during the Annual General Meeting held after the April Study Day and is normally a brief formality, with the six standing down and being voted back in.  However, the elections on 30 April 2016 promise to be the most interesting we have had for some time because unusually there are more candidates than places.

Most new Council members join via the co-optation route, being invited on to Council.  When an elected Council member retires, the longest-serving co-optee fills that place, then stands down and is re-elected at the time the person they substituted for would have (unless they decide in the meantime that Council life is not for them, which does happen).  This ensures a smooth continuity, though possibly tending to convey a sense to outsiders that the Council is a static self-perpetuating oligarchy.

Such an arrangement means that there is little incentive for contested elections, so it is rare for more than the six standing down to be nominated.  In any case, it’s not as if there is a huge desire arising from the membership to stand for Council.  This year is different, however, because there are eight people vying for the six places, and it is going to lead to a difficult choice for the Society’s members.

The eight are: Richard Broughton, Bernard Carr, Ciaran Farrell, Guy Lyon Playfair, Leslie Price, David Rousseau, Donald West, and me.  Price and Farrell are the two new candidates standing in opposition to the others, who are fulfilling their obligation to stand for re-election.  The list, with ‘Notes on Candidates’, will be found at the back of the Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.

It’s an interesting field because there are some heavyweights on the list of candidates. notably Broughton, Carr and West, who are all ex-presidents of the Society, and Playfair, who has a considerable reputation as an author in the field.  It is a foregone conclusion that they will all be re-elected, with the other four individuals fighting for the remaining two places.

Mr Farrell I suspect will fail in his electoral ambitions this time because he does not have a track record in the subject.  I certainly hadn’t heard of him before.  Hopefully he will continue his interest, and will perhaps be considered for co-optation at some point.  That leaves Price, Rousseau and Ruffles.

A member since 1967, Price has been on Council in the past, and is well known in the field: he is archivist at the College of Psychic Studies, is closely associated with the online Psypioneer journal, and founded The Christian Parapsychologist and Theosophical History.  Highly principled and knowledgeable, he is likely to garner a wide range of support, particularly from those who have an interest in Spiritualism or Theosophy.  Despite being rivals on the ballot paper, I was happy to second his nomination.

Rousseau has been on Council since 1997 and was for some time the treasurer, as well as being a member of a number of committees (sadly one of these was the Research Activities Committee, which folded after becoming moribund under his chairmanship).  His profile is probably not that strong in the Society.  He is also controversial as he has obtained very significant funding from the SPR for an obscure project on systems methodology which has yet to show its relevance, if any, to psychical research, and this largesse has not endeared him to those who feel the money could have been spent more wisely.

As for Ruffles, what can I say?  My social media work for the SPR might be considered to give me an edge in terms of recognition, but much of this does not bear my name.  Overall though the volume of activity on the Society’s behalf since I joined in 1987 may have had some impact (my election note is identical to my current entry on the publicly-available trustees’page of the SPR website).

So the result is going to be difficult to predict.  Personally I feel it is unfortunate that someone has to be disappointed but I hope that those eligible to vote in the election will examine the candidates’ track records carefully and decide which six of the eight have both the SPR’s interests at heart, and are best placed to contribute to its future development.  Naturally I would be extremely happy to find myself re-elected after 26 years’ continuous service on Council.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Easter Rising 1916 at the Photographers’ Gallery

The Countess Markievicz confusing armed struggle
 with theatrical posturing (Sean Sexton Collection)

To mark the centenary of the Easter uprising in Dublin, the Photographers’ Gallery in London has put on an exhibition focusing on that historically significant event.  There are about 80 images, including ephemera, drawn from the important collection of Irish photographs owned by Sean Sexton, who lives at Walthamstow in London.  The first part examines early photography in Ireland in order to emphasise the poor living conditions in the rural south, and the British military presence, the asymmetric relationship symbolised by an 1861 photograph of Queen Victoria in a carriage surveying her Irish domain.  The main section deals with the uprising itself, the major personalities involved in its leadership, and the immediate aftermath.  The final section looks at the consequences, the dividend for Sinn Fein despite not having been involved in the uprising, the political fallout as the struggle for independence gave rise to partition, and the bloody civil war which followed.

It is clear that photography had long been used not only as a documentary tool but also to foster a distinctive Irish culture which was Celtic and Catholic.  That could be achieved overtly – photographs of evictions – or implicitly, in photographs of archaeological sites that suggested the continuity of a national identity which pre-dated the presence of outsiders.  In that sense records of the events of 1916 were part of a continuum of photography as propaganda in the Nationalist cause, though clearly qualitatively different in their dramatic impact.

The uprising started on 24 April 1916, taking advantage of British involvement in the European conflict.  As one of the information panels put it, ‘England’s engagement in a protracted war provided the perfect cover for a revolution and resurrected an old adage, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.’   Understandably with the cumbersome technology of the period and wartime censorship, plus the dangers inherent in standing in an exposed spot, the fighting during the six days of the uprising itself was largely unphotographed.  Once the rebels had surrendered and the immediate dangers were over, however, there was a concerted effort to document the damage, which was extensive, and highlight the ham-fisted treatment of the ringleaders which appalled a population that had been to a large extent indifferent to the uprising itself.

The introductory panel refers to the role photography played after the uprising ‘in evolving a set of archetypes – the martyr, the hunger-striker, the rebel, the traitor, the spy – which paved the way for Irish independence and helped to shape the nationalist narratives that informed the Irish Republic.’  In particular there was a religious undercurrent underpinning the uprising, notably the idea of martyrdom for the executed leaders, who achieved fame after death to an extent they had not had while alive.  The images assisted a political transition from the previous emphasis on Home Rule by constitutional means to extra-parliamentary Republicanism.  The ascendency of Catholic influence in the movement is displayed in a photograph of a well-dressed group, those at the front on their knees and Irish flags in evidence, captioned ‘A crowd reciting the Rosary during the Irish Conference at Downing Street 1922’, reminding any who sought the establishment of a secular Republic, with Church and State separated, that they were going to be disappointed, and there are references to the way women in general were discriminated against in the 1937 Constitution.

In a video interview, curator Luke Dodd consistently refers to the rebels as insurgents so it is not difficult to see where his sympathies lie, and this is not an even-handed display – one wall has even been painted green to set off the photographs of the uprising to better effect.  The show couldn’t have been more partisan if selections from the James Connolly Songbook were playing on a loop.  One would be forgiven for thinking when reading the captions that ‘England’ was united in its desire to exploit the Irish, ignoring the fact that large sections of the working class in Britain, both rural and urban, also experienced extreme levels of poverty.

Similarly crude in its analysis, the exhibition pretends to cover both sides of the religious divide but material dedicated to Loyalism is fairly sparse, notably a couple of albums commemorating Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers.  One might be forgiven for assuming that the Protestant population outside the industrial North-East consisted entirely of wealthy landowners, and one certainly won’t learn anything here about the ethnic cleansing of Protestants from the Free State.  There are 20,000 images in Sexton’s collection, so this must be a very thin slice of what might have been shown.  It is enough to make the desired political points, certainly, but a more nuanced context would have been welcome.  That would have gone some way to reducing the sense, walking round the gallery, that the propaganda surrounding Easter 1916 in Dublin is still deemed to have currency in 2016 in London.

The exhibition opened on 22 January and runs until 3 April.  I doubt if there are any plans to transfer it to Belfast.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Changes at the National Media Museum

On 31 January 2016, Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS, Director-General of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), circulated an important announcement concerning the Society’s Collection.  This had been transferred to the National Media Museum (NMeM) at Bradford from the RPS’s headquarters at Bath in 2003.  However, the NMeM’s remit is undergoing a substantial alteration and the RPS’s holdings will shortly be on the move once more.  As Dr Pritchard put it, ‘The NMeM is refocusing on the science, technology and culture of light and sound and away from the “art” of photography.’ Consequently an agreement has been reached between the Science Museum Group – of which NMeM is part – and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.  Under this agreement the RPS’s Collection currently housed in Bradford will be transferred to the V&A.  This does not just affect the RPS: anything characterised as ‘art of photography’, will be moving to the V&A.  Dr Pritchard suggests that the operation will take place later this year.

The scale of the task is indicated in the RPS announcement, where it states that more than 400,000 objects will be sent to the V&A: ‘These photographs, cameras, books and manuscript material will join the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 photographs to create an International Photography Resource Centre. The new Centre will provide the public with a world-class facility to access this consolidated collection, which will become the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world.’  The present limited exhibition space at the V&A devoted to photography will be doubled, which is welcome news in itself, but to enhance access there will be a digitisation programme and touring exhibitions around the country.

Those developments will facilitate greater usage of the RPS’s archives than was the case in either Bath or Bradford.  The RPS has been assured that its Collection will retain its status as a distinct part of the broader V&A holding, as was the case with the NMeM.  The main concern expressed in the RPS press release is the loss of a coherent curatorial approach to photography, with the V&A concentrating on the art of photography rather than its artistic application in conjunction with the technical and scientific aspects that the NMeM was able to supply and consideration of which is vital to a full appreciation of the RPS’s Collection.  In practice one hopes that the RPS and the V&A will work together to ensure that usage is optimised to take into account those aspects which would otherwise fall outside the V&A’s art remit.

Overall the announcement is good news for the V&A and researchers in the south of England, but surely not for the NMeM.  The lengthy announcement on the RPS website highlights the key change: the NMeM is in future going to focus on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  The NMeM will retain more technical items, for example the Kodak Museum collection, those that deal with photography’s cultural impact, such as the Daily Herald archive, and anything specific to Bradford.  A new ‘interactive light and sound gallery’, costing £1.5m, is scheduled to open in March 2017, a valuable initiative for public education, but there will be fewer opportunities to undertake research there than before.  With even less reason to visit the NMeM once its archives have been reduced, its long-term future must be in doubt; after all, it was under threat of closure three years ago when faced with significant public spending cuts.  It is a large and expensive institution to maintain if its core function in the area of photography is going to be to inform school parties and the casual public about the medium’s science and technology.

The NMeM used to be called the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, though as its logo indicates its current scope is broader.  One has to wonder about the long-term future of its non-photographic collections.  Those relating to film and television tend to be more about technology, so they may be safe, but the future must be less certain.  I went to the NMeM to examine Charles Urban’s papers in my research into the early colour process Kinemacolor (and found both staff and surroundings very pleasant); the Urban papers were originally at the Science Museum and could easily go back there, or to the British Film Institute.  Further announcements about the changes will be made in the coming months, but losing such an important part of its offering feels like the thin end of the wedge for the NMeM, however upbeat it tries to be about future developments.

Update 20 March 2016

An upsurge of opposition to the move of photographic collections from Bradford to London has been building since it was announced at the end of January, with politicians and figures in the art world expressing their dismay.  Now the Guardian on 17 March has an article, ‘Royal Photographic Society “not consulted over collection move”,’ sub-headed, ‘In first public statement, society says it would prefer collection to remain at Bradford’s National Media Museum’.

The RPS’s announcement sounds slightly more equivocal than the subheading’s bald declaration suggests because the article goes on to say:

‘In its first public statement on the move since it was announced in February, the society said it would prefer its much-loved collection to remain in Bradford provided the museum remained a well-staffed centre for photography, although it added it would not oppose the proposed move to the V&A if certain conditions are met.’

The RPS is actually fairly glowing about the V&A.  The article continues:

‘The RPS described the V&A as a “world-class museum of international renown” and said it would have no reason to oppose the move providing that it met four key criteria: “The collection is kept together as a whole and not broken up; our initial agreement with the Science Museum Group is transferred to the new custodians and honoured in full; public access is maintained or enhanced; the collection is seen as a live collection and continues to grow.”’

It is most unlikely that those conditions would not be honoured by the V&A.  On the other hand, with the NMeM making staff redundant, the RPS’s requirement that the photographic part of its operation be well-staffed could be difficult to satisfy should the move to London be halted.  This issue was recognised by the RPS’s Director General, Michael Pritchard, in a Guardian article on 2 February (‘Bradford photography collection move to V&A reviled as “vandalism”’), noting declining staff and funding cuts at Bradford.

On the surface it was discourteous not to have consulted the RPS beforehand, assuming the report is accurate, considering what a significant proportion of the volume to be moved its holdings represents, though given the storm of protest that has met the announcement one can understand why the V&A and NMeM wanted to keep the matter quiet during their discussions.  The RPS Council needs to be diplomatic, but it must surely be secretly pleased that, while expressing legitimate concerns about the loss of a unified approach to the art and technology of photography, its collection will be utilised far more in London than it has been in Bradford, and the organisation will achieve a higher profile.

The Guardian article makes much of the fact that a 2015 exhibition of RPS photographs, Drawn by Light, was visited by 29,000 people at Bradford, while 21,260 attended when it was shown at the Science Museum.  That might suggest a greater appetite for the art of photography in the north.  But then the NMeM show was free to enter, whereas Londoners were forced to cough up £8.  If the Bradford leg had charged, one wonders how many would have gone in.  And of course someone is paying for it, either the visitor directly or, as at Bradford, through subsidies.  The NMeM is strapped for cash, and those in favour of retaining the photographic collections there need to explain how photography would be better served than at the V&A, with the latter’s vastly superior resources and potential for both scholarship and public engagement (and possibly visitors’ greater willingness to put their hands in their pockets for an exhibition).

Bradford East’s MP got excited by the Drawn by Light numbers, declaring ‘This revelation further illustrates the need for a full review and meaningful consultation before any decision can be taken with regards to moving the collection.’  I’m not sure that the numbers actually reveal very much, other than that people will always enjoy getting something they think is free.  And to refer to the move as ‘an appalling act of cultural vandalism’, an ‘act of cultural rape’ and ‘metropolitan cultural fascism’, as it has been variously described, is offensive hyperbole on the part of local politicians who should know better.  If you want to see those things, go to Syria, not the V&A.  Much of what is going to London came from there in the first place, and London rather than Bradford, it can be easily argued, is its natural home.