Professor in the culture of photography, University of Brighton
In the first week of September, Martin Roth, the distinguished director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), announced that he would be leaving. During his tenure, the V&A continued—as it had under his predecessor, Mark Jones—gradually to firm up its position as a world-class centre of photography, in a period when many other British institutions involved with the subject were either letting themselves down or being badly let down by others.
The infrastructure has been vandalised during a period of deep cuts in public funding. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has been done away with; Arts Council England is much diminished, although the recent announcement that Nicholas Serota will be given a chance to work his particular brand of magic on it after leaving the Tate suggests that it may be premature to think of it as beyond saving; and the UK’s culture ministry is supine.
Among photography collecting institutions, two disasters stand out among a host of smaller failures: the great collections of the Library of Birmingham have been removed from public access and the National Media Museum (formerly the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television) in Bradford has shed expertise and artefacts at a desperate rate and may not survive.
Super-collection This last event affects the V&A directly. It has already been agreed—it was announced in January—that in a spectacular deaccession from Bradford (and from its parent, the Science Museum Group), the V&A will receive a number of collections, including those of the photographers Zoltan Glass, Walter Nurnberg and Tony Ray-Jones, as well as the important Herschel and Ricketts collections.
The jewel in this group, in terms of the number of items, their quality and their historical importance, is the collection of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), acquired by the Science Museum in 2003. It consists of 270,000 images dating back to the very beginnings of photography on paper, glass and metal; cased images, negatives, prints and albums; 26,000 books and periodicals; and 10,000 items of archival materials. There are other great collections, but adding this one to the existing 500,000 or more images in the V&A’s care makes it credible to describe it as the most important photographic collection in the world.
It is possible that creating such a super-collection at the V&A will, in the end, make great sense, although many protested when the deaccession was announced, pointing out how hard it is to square moving another collection to London after all the political talk of a “northern powerhouse”. But it is also likely that the V&A will have as much difficulty in getting full value from the RPS collection and the others associated with it as the National Media Museum in Bradford had in the past.
To house this cornucopia of photographic history is going to be an effort for the V&A. It is not simply a question of moving a number of boxes from Bradford to London. A collection of this range and importance invites scholarship and wonder but also requires conservation, archiving, space and staff.
At various times in the negotiations over the acquisition, there was talk of the V&A opening a dedicated National Centre for Photography by 2022 on the institution’s main site in South Kensington, and of being able before that to offer open access to the RPS collection at Blythe House, a storage space in west London that the V&A currently underuses. By the time the formal announcement of the acquisition was made, the V&A offered only to open a second gallery in parallel with the existing, permanent but modest photography space, which has existed since 2011. No commitment on staffing, digitisation, research, publication, touring, access or conservation has been made.
Moving the huge collection to the V&A was not made under the personal guarantee of Martin Roth, but he clearly played a big part in promoting it. When it was announced, Roth was quoted as saying: “Our ambitious plans for enhancing digital access, collaborative research, touring exhibitions and creating an international photography resource centre will mean that future generations of visitors and researchers will benefit from these examples of the most important developments in artistic photographic history.”
Roth’s departure will mean anxious times for those who have witnessed the mismanagement of the UK’s dispersed national collections in photography across a number of institutions, and they may well now wonder if another disappointment is on the way.
Update: the V&A announced on 11 October that it planned to open a "suite of photography galleries" in late 2017.