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The history behind Bradford’s loss of the Royal Photography Society archive to London’s V&A

Image courtesy National Media Museum

There are also structural and historical reasons that underpin the RPS archive's move from Bradford to London. They have never been resolved in the UK and have been festering away since the 19th century.

We do live in very centralised country that is unparalleled in any other European country. Is this not the reason why Scotland wants independence? To counter this unbalance the government as recently proposed the idea of the Northern Powerhouse where some decision and economic power are devolved to the regions.

The irony of this should not be missed. It was on the 23 June 2014 at The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester (also part of the Science Museum Group) that the Chancellor George Osborne announced the Northern Powerhouse plan. It’s worth quoting Osborne from his speech where he makes reference to the arts and to the then Culture Minister. “The new Culture secretary Sajid Javid, born here in Rochdale, has talked about how we give more people outside London access to world class arts and culture. Not at the expense of our capital city’s great institutions, but as a complement to them, and in partnership with them.”

Later in the year, Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement that under the Northern Powerhouse plan, Manchester would get a new theatre and arts venue called The Factory by 2019. This would be partly funded by central government grant of £78 million.

Less than two years later in February this year the Science Museum Group announced that the Royal Photographic Society Collection will move from Bradford to London.

This raises questions about wider cultural policy in the UK. Can any museum dispose of works in their collections without public scrutiny? Many local museums have or are considering the sale of works in their collections because of cuts to their budgets.  With local run museums this comes into the public domain, but with the Royal Photographic Society Collection this was decided behind closed doors. There is no public forum where the move of this collection could be discussed never mind questioned.

It should be remembered that the Royal Photographic Society Collection has been on the road for some years and different public institutions have received public money to facilitate these moves.

The collection was moved from to London to Bath when in the late 1970s the Royal Photographic Society had to sell its building in central London. The Society moved into The Octagon building in Bath, but this was not suitable to house such an important collection so it then moved to Bradford in 2003.

Its future will be probably be virtual, presumably on the V&A website, which has very good content on photography. By comparison, the website of the National Media Museum is in my view very poor.

But the move of this collection to the V&A raises many other questions. Have they got the physical space and the funding for the proposed collection and research centre?

Even if they increase the existing exhibition space for photography by 50 percent it will still be relatively small. In recent years their photographic exhibitions have been limited, and sometimes badly curated. Within such a large museum with many other commitments, how will photography compete for resources and display time?

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