Curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) have pledged to put photography at the heart of the 164-year-old South Kensington institution by turning one wing into a centre dedicated to the medium.
The strategy is partly designed to convince photography professionals who oppose the decision to transfer more than 400,000 photographs from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the V&A. Critics, many of whom signed a letter to the Guardian this weekend, including David Hockney and Martin Parr, say the move strips the northern city of a major cultural resource and fear it could lead to the closure of the NMM. Simon Cooke, the leader of the Conservatives on Bradford council, called the deal “an act of cultural rape on my city”.
Under a landmark agreement announced in February between the V&A and the Science Museum Group, which runs the NMM, a portion of the Bradford museum’s three-million-strong photography holdings will join the existing collection of 500,000 photographs at the V&A.
Most of the items are owned by the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), which began collecting photography in 1853 to record the medium’s rapid technical advancements. Its holdings include early cameras and work by innovators such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Roger Fenton.
Julia Margaret Cameron's Sadness (1863). © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Felice Beato, Japanese girl with parasol (1864-1867). © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Alvin Langdon Coburn, Tower Bridge (1910). © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door (1843). © National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
The V&A plans to begin moving the material to London at the end of this year but the exact timetable is not yet confirmed, says Martin Barnes, the senior curator of photographs at the V&A. He notes that the RPS holdings have been in Bradford only since 2003. “The items to be transferred are mainly light-sensitive and have therefore been viewed via limited appointment in a study room,” he says.
To accommodate the new material, the V&A plans to double the size of the first-floor gallery housing its photography collection (another smaller space used for photography displays is located on the ground floor). In the coming years, the museum also plans to reconfigure the north-east quarter of the building to add an International Photography Resource Centre, which would include a library and archive. The cost and timeline for the project have not yet been determined.
“In the long term, this will benefit photography and give even better access to these astonishing collections. We need the photography community to support us in this collaborative initiative,” Barnes says.
The photography community speaks out on the archive's move south
Martin Parr, photographer
Martin Parr ©Patrick McMullan
For the photography community, this is bad news. I tend to agree with the Bradford MPs that this is stripping the city of a major photographic resource. I am concerned as photography is lowly in the V&A hierarchy. How will the curators there cope with these extra photographic items? Martin Barnes is nonetheless a very capable curator so we’ll see how this pans out.
Katy Barron, independent photography curator and adviser
The outcry is really a valid reaction to cuts in funding to museums by local and national government. However, the RPS collection has only been in Bradford for a short while and is not an integral part of the city’s cultural heritage. Adding it to the V&A holdings will enhance its historical perspective and allow greater public access. The National Media Museum will continue to hold more than three million photographic works—adequate funding for its curatorial expertise is far more important than the location of the RPS collection.
Camilla Brown, visiting fellow in photography at the University of Derby
First, I wonder what will happen to the very skilled and knowledgeable Bradford-based curatorial staff? The UK photography community is small, and it seems we are losing a number of our mid-generation curatorial experts in recent times. Second, I feel we are opening up a very big regional divide here in terms of our cultural provision and access to collections. It feels to me that without some form of national strategy, this will get a lot worse.