Issue #243  9/4/2018
New V&A Photography Centre to Open First Phase in London amidst Controversy

By Michael Diemar

V&A Photography Centre - Render of The Bern and Ronny Schwartz Gallery and Gallery 101 © David Kohn Architects
V&A Photography Centre - Render of The Bern and Ronny Schwartz Gallery and Gallery 101 © David Kohn Architects

On October 12th, London's Victoria & Albert Museum will open the first phase of its new Photography Centre, more than doubling the space dedicated to photography at the museum.

Situated in the V&A's Northeast Quarter, the center will reclaim the beauty of three original picture galleries and is part of the V&A's FuturePlan development program to revitalize the museum's public spaces through contemporary design and the restoration of original features. A second phase of the Photography Centre, planned to open in 2022, will expand it further, providing even more exhibition space, as well a teaching and research space, a browsing library and a studio and darkroom for photographers' residencies.

While the center is a welcome addition to the UK photography scene, for many it is also tinged with a great deal of bitterness. This bittersweet reaction is because of the highly controversial transfer of the Royal Photographic Society's collection from the National Media Museum in Bradford, since renamed National Science and Media Museum, to the V&A, announced in 2016 and carried out the following year.

V&A Photography Centre - Render of Room 108 © David Kohn Architects
V&A Photography Centre - Render of Room 108 © David Kohn Architects

The center, designed by David Kohn Architects, is supported by the Bernd Schwartz Family Foundation and other donors, and Gallery 100 will be known as the Bernd and Ronny Schwartz Gallery.

The entrance to the new Photography Centre will be through an installation of over 150 cameras. Nearby, an interactive camera handling station will offer visitors an understanding of how photographers view the world through their equipment.

Inside the gallery, focused sections will look at a series of collections and collectors. This will include a group of William Henry Fox Talbot's cameras and prints, Pictorialist photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn's collection of photographs by his predecessors and contemporaries, and a selection of some of the most significant photojournalism of the 20th century collected by Magnum Photos' UK agents, John and Judith Hillelson.

On display will be over 600 objects from across Europe, the US, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Also featured will be images by early color photography pioneers, Agnes Warburg, Helen Messinger Murdoch and Nickolas Murray, and recent acquisitions by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cornelia Parker, Linda McCartney and Mark Cohen. A pioneering botanical cyanotype by Anna Atkins, images by the world's first female museum photographer, Isabel Agnes Cowper, and motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge, will join photographs by some of the world's most influential modern and contemporary photographers, including Eugène Atget, Man Ray, Walker Evans, Cindy Sherman and Martin Parr. It will also feature a digital wall to show the most cutting-edge photographic imagery.

V&A Photography Centre - Render of the 'Dark Tent' © David Kohn Architects
V&A Photography Centre - Render of the 'Dark Tent' © David Kohn Architects

The Photography Centre will feature the 'dark tent', a multimedia projection and lecture space inspired by 19th-century photographers' traveling darkrooms. Here, specially commissioned films revealing early photographic processes, including the daguerreotype, calotype and wet collodion process will be screened, along with a slideshow projection of rarely seen magic lantern slides revealing the first attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1921 and 1922.

The opening of the Photography Centre will be accompanied by a three-week spotlight on photography across the V&A, including a series of talks by leading photographers, screenings, events, courses, workshops, and a Friday Late dedicated to photography.

Historical overviews have been a recurring theme at the V&A over the years, in exhibitions as well as displays. I have often been puzzled by the choice of material though, and this time is no exception, at least judging by the press images made available to me just over a month before the opening. Keeping in mind the wonderful prints in the now vastly enlarged collection, the choice of Fox Talbot and Cameron prints on exhibit could have been represented by much better prints.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), Pomona, 1872, © The RPS Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), Pomona, 1872, © The RPS Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

To mark the opening, the V&A has also commissioned German photographer Thomas Ruff to create a new body of work. Known for taking a critical and conceptual approach to photography, Ruff's new series will be inspired by Captain Linnaeus Tripe's 1850s paper negatives of Burma and India from the V&A's collection.

In a press statement, Dr. Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, said: "The transfer of the historic Royal Photographic Society collection provided the catalyst for this dramatic reimagining of photography at the V&A. Our collection--initiated by the V&As visionary first director Henry Cole--now seamlessly spans the entire history of photography, telling the story of the medium from the daguerreotype to the digital. Our new Photography Centre will provide a world-class facility to re-establish photography as one of our defining collections. In an era when everyone's iPhone makes them a photographer, the V&A's Photography Centre explores and explains the medium in a compelling new way."

Compelling or not, for many the transfer of the RPS collection was a scandal, for some robbing Bradford of its civic pride, for others that it effectively meant the end of a national museum of photography in the UK.

The idea for such a museum was probably first suggested in the mid-1970's by Sue Davis, who co-founded the Photographers' Gallery with Dorothy Bohm in 1971. But it was Colin Ford who pursued the idea for nine years. The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television opened in 1983, as part the Science Museum Group, with Ford as founding director. Within a couple of years it had become the UK's most visited museum outside London.

In 2003, the museum purchased the Royal Photographic Society collection for £3.75 million, funded by grants from the National Heritage Fund, the National Art Collections Fund and Yorkshire Forward.

The Royal Photographic Society, founded in 1853 as the Photographic Society of London, was, until 1979 when it moved to Bath, based in London. The society had over the years built up perhaps the most formidable collection of photographs in the world but the premises in Bath were inadequate to say the least. The Octagon Gallery was small with poor lighting, and the collection was stored in less than perfect conditions. Unable to meet the mounting costs for conservation, the society sold to the Bradford museum.

While the collection was safe in Bradford, the museum itself, and certainly not its identity, wasn't. In 2006 its name was changed from the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television to the National Media Museum, a move now regarded by many as the beginning of the slippery slope towards changing its purpose.

V&A Photography Centre - Render of Gallery 99 © David Kohn Architects
V&A Photography Centre - Render of Gallery 99 © David Kohn Architects

Within a few years the arts would become increasingly centralized in London, and the government's austerity program, introduced in 2010, meant disproportionate cuts in the regions. They hit Bradford as well, and hard. In 2013 the museum faced a 30% cut in funding, then near closure, but it was finally saved following a public outcry.

The year before, the museum's director, Jo Quinton-Tulloch had been given the task of realigning the museum within the Science Museum Group, which meant focusing on science and technology, thereby ending the holistic approach to photography, taking in both art and science; and the new mission statement was published in 2013.

Worse was to come for Bradford. The announcement in February 2016 of the transfer of more than 400,000 objects from Bradford's National Media Museum--the bulk of which was part of the Royal Photographic collection, roughly 312 000 objects--to the V&A caused an absolute uproar. One Bradford councilor derided the plan as "an appalling act of cultural vandalism", and Richard Morrison, cultural critic at The Times described it as "lunacy" and "London-centric nonsense". They weren't alone.

On March 6th The Observer published an open letter opposing the transfer, signed by 88 leading figures in art, film and photography, including David Hockney, Mike Leigh, Michael Hoppen, James Hyman and Colin Ford, the museum's founding director, as well as many photographers, including Martin Parr, Don McCullin, Paul Graham, Brian Griffin and Eamonn McCabe.

As the letter stated, "a number of us who have deposited our photographs in the museum did so specifically because we wanted our work to be preserved in the north."

Only two museums had been asked to submit bids for the RPS collection, the Tate and the V&A. On March 17th, The Guardian reported that the Royal Photographic Society had not been consulted over the transfer of the collection from NMM to the V&A, and that "it would prefer the collection to remain in Bradford, provided the museum remained a well-staffed center for photography, although it would not oppose the proposed move to the V&A if certain conditions are met".

Callum Barton made an audio documentary about the controversial transfer, available here as a podcast in two parts: http://www.drawnbylightpodcast.org.

And so the RPS collection was delivered to the V&A in 22 lorry loads over six weekends in February and March last year. The V&A had rebuilt a large climate-controlled area, and a staff and a group of volunteers spent several months conducting a survey of the boxes.

Colin Ford, initially highly critical of the transfer, nevertheless said in an interview with the magazine Apollo in May of this year that he had been totally impressed, and that "the V&A has already done more in terms of sorting it out and storing it, than poor old Media Museum did."

I suspect that others are far less forgiving, and that they'll remain so.

Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.