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.