Source Ref.: RPS 17901 Photo Studio, Science Museum, London Date: 9 February 2005 Colour Profile: Adobe RGB (1998) Gamma Setting: 2.2 Please note: This image is currently not fully processed.

Photograph by Benjamin Brecknell Turner (1815–14), paper negative (all images courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum and © NMPFT/Royal Photographic Society/Science & Society Picture Library)

Last week, the Science Museum Group (SMG) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) announced what they deemed “a historic agreement”: 400,000 objects from SMG’s three-million-strong photography collection, held at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, will be moved to London’s V&A. When combined with the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 photographs, the resulting International Photography Resource Centre, as they’re calling the new institution, will become the largest official collection of photography in the world.

The vast group of images, most of which are part of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection, will chart the evolution of photography over the past 200 years. Images include the first negatives and daguerrotypes, early color photographs, and work by British pioneers like William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the salted paper and calotype processes, and Julia Margaret Cameron, the Victorian photographer known for her mystical Pre-Raphaelite portraits. Historic photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, Paul Strand, and Ansel Adams will also feature in the collection.

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Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “Xie Kitchin as Chinese tea merchant” (c 1876). Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll, was author of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice through the Looking-Glass.’

The V&A’s curators and staffers are, understandably, thrilled about this new collection’s potential for research, exhibitions, publications, and more. For tourists who want to check this stuff out but are much more likely to visit London than Bradford, the deal is also good news.

But not everyone is excited about the move. With a population of 528,000, Bradford is a much smaller and less economically stable city than London, and the National Media Museum (NMM), from which the images will be moved, is one of its main tourist attractions. In 2013, after funding cuts, the NMM was on the brink of closing. Some fear that this deal, which will reduce the museum’s total collection by 10%, will be the nail in its coffin.

Simon Cooke, the leader of the Conservatives on Bradford council, described the deal as an “act of cultural rape on my city.” In a statement, he went on, defending Bradford’s right to keeping the photographs:

I know London is a big, grand and fantastic city but to denude my city of these photographs reminds us that you – all the V&A’s trustees are based in London, many will never have visited Bradford – care not one jot for our heritage and history.

I know you are incredibly excited by all this but, trust me, you could – had you had the guts and vision – have based this new resource centre in the north, in Bradford, where they would have been loved and cherished in a way you in London can never understand. …. A plague on you and your metropolitan cultural fascism.

Imran Hussain, the Labour MP for Bradford East, told The Guardian that the deal was an example of “absolute metropolitanism.” “It’s a real blow to Bradford,” he said. “We have just spent the last few years progressing in the right direction and now this. It’s going to have a major impact … culturally and on education, because there’s children who will not get to see this collection.”

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Julia Margaret Cameron, “Sadness,” (1863), a study of the Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry (© Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum)

But a spokesman for the National Media Museum reassured the hand wringers: “We are not closing. Quite the contrary. We have ambitious plans for the future and strong support both within the Science Museum Group and among key local stakeholders such as the council.”

Still, it’s understandable that Bradford residents aren’t happy about parting with these images; many are truly remarkable. Herewith, a selection of photographs from the International Photography Resource Centre.

Barcode: Photo Studio, Science Museum, London Scan Date: 9 August 2006 Colour Profile: Adobe RGB (1998) Gamma Setting: 2.2 Please note: This image is currently not fully processed.

John Hinde, “Woman saving board games from bomb wreckage, London” (1939–45). Hinde was an important early exponent of color photography in Britain.

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“Group of young boys” (c 1860). Portrait of a group of boys in Victorian dress (© NMPFT/Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society Picture Library)

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Rudolf Koppitz, “Bewengungsstudie (Movement study)” (1926) (© NMPFT/Royal Photographic Society/Science & Society Picture Library)

filename: hands Science Museum Photo Studio Date: 17/05/05 Colour Profile: Adobe RGB (1998) Gamma Setting: 2.2 Please note: This image is not currently fully processed.

Atelier von Behr, “Hands” (1930s). Atelier Von Behr had a studio in New York at 20 West 8th Street and specialized in portraiture (© NMPFT/Royal Photographic Society/Science & Society Picture Library)

Felice Beato, “Japanese girl with parasol” (c 1864–67), hand-colored albumen print (© Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

Sea of Steps', 1903, by Frederick Henry Evans (1853-1943).

Frederick Henry Evans, “Sea of Steps” (1903) (© Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

Barcode: 10464141 Photo Studio, Science Museum, London Scan Date: 6 December 2006 Colour Profile: Adobe RGB (1998) Gamma Setting: 2.2 Please note: This image is currently not fully processed.

Adolphe Pegoud, “The daring French aeronaut” (c 1913), hand-colored lantern slide from the World Missionary Society Slide Depot, UK (© Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

Picture number: PHO/C000462 Description: 'The Open Door', 1943. By William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 - 1877). Salted paper print from a calotype negative. Credit: National Museum of Photography, Film and Television/Science & Society Picture Library All images reproduced must have the correct credit line. Clients who do not print a credit, or who print an incorrect credit, are charged a 100% surcharge on top of the relevant reproduction fee. Storage of this image in digital archives is not permitted. For further information contact the Science & Society Picture Library on (+44) 207 942 4400.

William Henry Fox Talbot, “The Open Door” (1943), salted paper print from a calotype negative (courtesy the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television/Science & Society Picture Library)

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

3 replies on “Victoria & Albert Amasses World’s Largest Photography Collection at Regional Museum’s Expense”

  1. I really don’t know where to begin with this article. Firstly, the National Media Museum is not a “regional museum”, despite being outside London. It’s a ‘national museum’, as the name makes clear, and what is at stake here is precisely the downgrading of its status. It’s unfortunate that the language used in your piece (inadvertently, I hope) has the effect of reconfirming the prejudice that national museums cannot exist outside the capital, though I suppose it does neatly demonstrate the problem.

    Secondly, opposition to this move has come not merely from ‘handwringers’, as you rather dimissively term them (again, I hope the tone is accidental) and ‘Bradford residents’, but a significant part of the UK’s photographic, artistic, curatorial and research communities, not to mention museum visitors from far and wide. Even many London-based commentators have felt that is a centralising move too far, and that the V&A, whose primary remit is decorative art, is, despite its expertise, ill-placed to act as a national museum of photography. Furthermore, the loss of curatorial expertise, not only in photography but also in film and, crucially, television which the proposed move entails ought to be a matter of concern for everyone in the arts, wherever they are based.

    Thirdly, while it is no doubt true that many more ‘tourists’ are likely to visit London than Bradford, that does not necessarily equate to more tourists seeing the collections. Even with the expanded space for photography promised by the V&A, a visitor to the museum would be hard pressed to see everything, and is likely to be waylaid by the spectacular Renaissance galleries just past the entrance, or the British galleries upstairs, or the special exhibitions (e.g. David Bowie, Alexander McQueen etc.) unless they have a pre-existing interest in photography. This is without taking into account all the other museums, galleries and attractions in London with which the V&A is in competition. And tourists do go to Bradford, with the National Media Museum part of a well-established tourist trail that includes the Brontë parsonage and the UNESCO world heritage site at Saltaire.

    Lastly, who are the national museums and collections for? Are they for ‘tourists’? Are they for curators, artists and researchers (who are more widely dispersed than people often think, & for whom a research trip to Bradford is often far more economic than one to London)? Or are they for the nation at large? And if they are, is that audience best served by lumping them all together in a single location at one end of the country with crumbs for everywhere else in the form of satellite museums or the occasional touring show? For the question this article misses is not about one particular collection, but UK arts and museum policy as a whole, which thinks nothing of spending £50m of public money on the Tate Modern extension & can magically find an extra £6m for its running costs, while systematically starving institutions like the National Media Museum of resources to the point where downgrading and asset-stripping them looks like the obvious option.

    1. Well said.

      I know plenty of international researchers that are happy to go to Bradford because that is where the collection is……it is only the UK that thinks everything should be in London.

      The whole sorry business has infuriated me with it’s frankly insulting attempt to dress it up as an intellectually sound division of photography into ‘art’ and ‘science’. A nonsense of course.

      The NMeM has the closest thing we have to a national photography collection and it is both extremely good, world class good, and comprehensive. What will now happen is that the most financially valuable photographs from the RPS and NMeM collections (not just RPS by any means) is off to join a very similar collection in the V&A.

      It doesn’t make sense to researchers nor as a collection…..meanwhile the V&A doesn’t have much space for storage or research, nor do they have the staff whilst back in Bradford the specialist staff are losing their jobs, the research facilities likely to be under-used and the new Media Space in the SCM will be expensively wasted…..or it was always meant for the V&A to exhibit photography all along?

      The NMeM should get the resourcing it deserves, the photography collection and the staff get the respect they deserve……and the V&A collection would be more accessible and make more sense if it moved to Bradford and not the other way around.

  2. On a nit-picky note: proofread your dates! The Fox Talbot image dates to 1843, not 1943, and the Brecknell Turner image is also wrong (the photographer was born in 1815).

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