The Bradford dilemma
The decision to move the Royal Photographic Society’s collection from Bradford to London is both logical and unfortunate.
The 400,000 objects, including 270,000 images, have only been part of the National Media Museum, as it is now called and is an outstation of the Science Museum, since 2002. The collection had been transferred there from Bath thanks to a grant of £3.75m from the HLF, and seemed rational under Colin Ford who had created an excellent national museum of the image there that in its heyday attracted millions of visitors a year. A moving image project had failed at London’s Southbank.
But Bradford’s place in the world as a centre for the photographic image was not recognised by the museum-going public, and as the Science Museum’s director Ian Blatchford told AI the museum with its falling visitor numbers and the need for rethinking its role at a time of diminishing investment was the group’s major dilemma. In 2013 his board was on the brink of closing it.
That the collection should go not to the Science Museum but to the V&A – where Blatchford was deputy director before moving across the road to the Science Museum – is also logical. Thirty years ago the V&A had been designated by its then director as the National Museum of the Art of Photography (as well as the National Museum of the Fine and Decorative Arts) and has the world’s largest collection of its sort.
Yet as the Arts Council knows to its pain as it tries to follow the government’s instruction to lessen its concentration on London to increase its endowment in the regions and recognise cultural life beyond the capital, the north of England is the poor relation in the cultural family which this move is only serving to make more obvious. Under the director Jo Quinton-Tulloch the National Media Museum has dramatically cut costs and followed the Science Museum board’s instruction to “clarify our focus”, so that now it is to explore the science and culture of light and sound, and is now devoted to science and engineering rather than the art of image-making, and this move is part of that 18-month, so far, process.
The culture secretary, John Whittingdale, had been chair of the Commons culture select committee who berated the Arts Council for an imbalance in funding between London and the regions and effectively ordering it to change it “as a matter of urgency”. But he has said he won’t intervene in the Bradford issue.
As it is, the Bradford museum’s new focus – a phrase Dame Mary Archer, the Science Museum’s chair, uses with no sense of irony – is unlikely to be the cynosure every major museum needs to succeed. It had an independent characteristic but now will be little more than a distant department of the South Kensington main building – it has even been suggested by Dame Mary’s board that its new name should be “Science Museum North” making it even more anonymous.
It is, therefore, a solution for the Science Museum that denies the needs and character of Bradford and the north; it is a matter of priorities and the Science Museum board has decided what its priorities are.