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.
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.”
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.