Moving the collections from Bradford’s National Media Museum to London is a betrayal of the North

Street photographer, c. 1930, part of the NMeM collection.

Budget 2016 may look to have been kind to the arts in the regions. Museums and galleries are to receive tax breaks for temporary or touring exhibitions, though the Museums Association’s policy officer Alistair Brown highlighted the problem that this failed to address “the fundamental problem of diminishing local authority funding”.

And it’s very unlikely that marginal tax breaks will make any difference to the circumstances of Bradford’s National Media Museum. It was recently announced that the artistic collections of the museum, which is part of the Science Museum Group, are to be deaccessioned to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Bradford is retaining those collections purported to be in the scientific and technical area of photography, still deemed relevant to the museum’s “fresh start”: a new focus on the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

This has predictably caused much heat. Some 80 established photography professionals, including Mike Leigh and David Hockney, signed a letter of protest which was sent to the national papers.

Concern centres on the impoverishment of Bradford and the North of England in favour of a metropolitan cultural holding already rich in photography. The creation of a super-collection at the V&A, which the acquisition of the collection of the Royal Photographic Society (the largest and most important of those now being disposed of from Bradford) would most assuredly amount to, is felt to be prejudicial to the government’s stated interest in devolving culture and economic power to the regions.

Shifting great sacks of treasure from the National Media Museum is certainly a betrayal of the north. The present government has been much given to a rhetorical trope about “the Northern Powerhouse” it wishes to see develop. The truth is that the museum has been moving away from its original remit as a collections-based museum for many years. It was back in 2006 that it changed its name from National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. The reorganisation which accompanied the name change made many curatorial experts in the collections redundant.

The Poacher, Peter Henry Emerson. The Royal Photographic Society Collection/National Media Museum

London-bound

Another strand of expressed dismay is about the way in which the deaccession decision was reached. If the Department for Culture Media and Sport had hoped that it was an operational matter for the Science Museum to decide how to effect the savings it deemed essential, large interest groups outside did not agree. I have seen a number of papers obtained under Freedom of Information rules which make it plain that although the trustees of the Science Museum and of the National Media Museum had been planning the deaccession in detail for some 18 months, they at no stage thought to offer them to any museums other than the Tate and the V&A.

A paper was prepared for a meeting of the board of trustees of the Science Museum Group on December 2 2015 by Judith McNicol, a director at the Science Museum Group, under the authority of Jo Quinton-Tulloch, director of the National Media Museum. It is quite explicit. “The art and cultural photography collections no longer fit with the aspirations of the museum and the focus on STEM,” it says in its introduction. It later says that “the two leading museums in this field, the Tate and the V&A, were given the opportunity to express interest in the collections. Both responded enthusiastically”.

We can be sure that they did. But we can also worry about these new aspirations. It is a novel museum which holds no aspiration to house one of the great historical collections in its field.

Why only London? There were other possible solutions to be explored. The City of Bradford has already invested a great deal in the National Media Museum and might have been able to put together a plan for keeping the collections under its control. The Science Museum’s other daughter house in Manchester, the Museum of Science and Industry, could have taken over the running of the Bradford Museum and savings could have been achieved that way. Not to consider these or any other solutions was a mistake. The public dismay made that plain. By then 27,000 people had signed an online petition against the deaccessions.

Richard and Cherry Kearton taking a photograph of a bird’s nest, 1900. The Royal Photographic Society Collection/National Media Museum

‘World’s best’

There are other factors to take into consideration. One of those which seems to have gone very little mentioned is that the Royal Photographic Society collection was initially bought for the National Museum of Photography Film and Television with public funds. The Yorkshire Post was able to report with considerable glee on June 7 2002 – under the headline, “City snaps up world’s best photo collection” – that the collection would “make its home in Bradford thanks to a £3.75m award from the Heritage Lottery Fund”.

This funding, the paper was able to say, “establishes the medium as a vital part of Britain’s national heritage”. It is odd for a national museum under the tightest of financial constraints to dispose of substantial paid-for assets with no attempt even to affect to acquire value for them. Yet the deaccession is only contemplated as a gift for no consideration.

The V&A might absorb this vast extra holding in photography, and it is possible that – the betrayal of the north notwithstanding — the outcome will be positive. But there is no very sure guarantee of that. There are large costs to the V&A, and no word of whence they are to be defrayed.

So it is far from clear how that absorption can be made in practice. Simply to have offloaded the material — and with it the problem that there are costs in maintaining it and making it available to view — may have seemed satisfactory from within the boards of the Science Museum and the National Media Museum. It looks like a reinforcement of the large imbalance in cultural spending between London and the North of England, and it looks also like a major acknowledgement of defeat by the National Media Museum.

Mary Archer, chair of the Science Museum trustees, admitted as much in an extraordinary attempt to spin the situation in the Guardian: “The Collection [of the Royal Photographic Society] is great, but in the past decade or so we have not been able to do it justice.” Whether all that can be described as satisfactory from a wider view of the national collections in photography remains to be seen.

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