V&A to open new galleries for photos acquired from Bradford museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum is to open one of the most comprehensive photography centres in the world, which will house a collection of prints acquired from the Bradford Media Museum last year.
The V&A will expand its current photography space in the north-east wing of its South Kensington museum, opening into a further seven galleries. The first phase of the project will open in autumn 2018.
The expansion was prompted by their procurement of the world famous Royal Photographic Society collection, which is made up of over 400,000 prints and historic equipment, which had been housed in the Bradford Media Museum since 2003.
The decision to move the collection from Bradford to London in February last year was described as an act of “cultural rape on the city” by local politicians and a signifier of “metropolitan cultural fascism”. It prompted an open letter, signed by figures such as David Hockney and Mike Leigh, that protested against the relocation.
Martin Barnes, senior curator of photographs at the V&A, said the focus of the photography centre would be on opening up accessibility both of the V&A’s collection, which first began in 1852, and the 270,000 photographs of the RPS collection.
“I hope it will be a pleasant surprise for those who were upset by the move, that we will very rapidly be able to make the collections more accessible than they’ve ever been,” said Barnes.
“I think there will be a very rapid sense of the collection being much more available than it had been in Bradford.”
The opening of the new centre, which will happen in two phases, will also be accompanied by a museum-wide photography festival.
Barnes objected to the idea that acquiring the images had been an act of cultural vandalism and said this marked an “ exciting opportunity to tell a comprehensive chronological story of photography”.
“Vandalism is very different from taking care of a collection,” said Barnes. “My job is to take care of that collection, look after it, but make it available and make it accessible. I don’t think that vandalism is an appropriate term for what we are trying to do with that collection.”
It was the Science Museum Group that first approached the V&A to ask if they were interested in acquiring the collection from the Bradford Media Museum. In Bradford the pictures were not on display but available to view via appointment.
Barnes said the V&A had been planning to expand its photography galleries but that the RPS collection had been the catalyst to building a new photography-dedicated centre in the museum.
Among the RPS treasures to be displayed in the new centre are works by British pioneers William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the negative/positive process for producing photographs, and Julia Margaret Cameron, known for her pre-Raphaelite-inspired portrait photography. It also features contemporary works by Don McCullin, Martin Parr and Mark Power.
Barnes said combining the collections meant they could seamlessly display together items such as Margaret Cameron’s letters, prints, negatives, lenses and books, which were previously split between Bradford and the V&A.
“This collection adds a whole different element of not just photos but negatives, camera equipment and an archive of books and journals that compliment the V&A collection greatly,” he said. “Combined, this is now one of the largest collections of its kind in the UK, and in terms of scale and quality, is one of the greatest in the world.”
Barnes said the attention on the RPS collection had put pressure, but a “good pressure”, on his team to prove it should be housed in the photography centre in London.
“The debate about where it should sit in the country, and how we interpret it, has been very galvanising for me and my team and the museum,” he said.
“My feeling is that the collection is here now, it’s something we have a duty of care over and we’re excited to use all our resources to making this collection as accessible as possible.”