Archive, News

From the archive… the long-simmering feud over housing Britain’s photography

Controversy over where to house the national photography collection? It’s a slow-burning feud...

News that the National Media Museum is losing the world-class RPS Collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum had us delving into our archives for some background. There is history between these two, as our 4 March 1982 edition attests, reporting open warfare between the museums long ahead of the Bradford opening.

In our leader, ‘Whither Bradford’, published more than a year ahead of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television’s opening, the unnamed writer (most likely then-editor, Geoffrey Crawley) charts a public spat that contrasts sharply with the cloak-and-dagger spin employed today.

“Since the formal announcement of the go-ahead of the Bradford Museum was given last year, the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Roy Strong, has been sounding off in the public prints with objections based on the belief that the new museum would be overlapping unnecessarily with the V&A photographic collection. His criticisms were particularised to the point of maintaining that the V&A was deliberately kept out of the picture until after the press conference 130 Archive at which the go-ahead was announced, he presumes, to prevent objections from the V&A being lodged.”

Does this tale of subterfuge sound familiar? As we went to press with this issue, the photographic community and the people of Bradford were lodging their objections to the removal of the RPS Archive, but further revelations were expected. Would Bradford be renamed Science Museum North? Would its remaining photographic collections be mothballed, its expert staff replaced by a lowly paid junior archivist, its excellent research facilities closed to access or borrowings? And what of the Media Space at the London HQ – how would that fare following the Science Museum’s decision to focus on science and technology? Is it telling that neither seems to have an exhibition scheduled that extends longer than spring?

Our 1982 leader detailed Strong’s petulant response to a BBC radio interview given by Colin Ford, who had recently been announced as the first keeper at the new museum. Paraphrasing a Sunday Times interview with Strong, we reported his objection to any collecting activity by Bradford as “a complete violation of the agreement arrived at between when the original project for a national photographic museum was cancelled, under which the Science Museum would concentrate on equipment, and the V&A would focus on aesthetics. Strong claimed the Science Museum has no budget to collect, telling Sunday Times, ‘but I have £1.2m and I’ll outbid them in any sales room’.”

His fears were vindicated when Ford later told the newspaper: “Most museums are either about the history and technology or about the art of photography. My view is that it has to be about both.” It’s a view our writer agreed with, before calling for a declaration of clarity, and then objecting to the idea of the two museums competing in the “over-priced art market” using the public purse, and warning of “personal empire” building. Thirty-four years later, the invisible lines are being redrawn, but this time the process is being properly media managed.

 

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