The last week has shown again how much this museum means to Bradford, and how much it owes to Bradford.
Unsurprisingly it brought to my mind 2013, when this museum really was under threat of closure. Years of declining visitor figures and a major cut in funding to the Science Museum Group—almost 30% in real terms since 2010—had left us at a point where the unthinkable was becoming a very real possibility. At that point, you made your voices heard, telling the government—and us—that you would do everything you could to keep the museum here in Bradford.
This week, when we announced that we were planning to transfer a comparatively small—but significant—part of our photography collection to the V&A in London, I knew that for some of you it would come as unwelcome news. A loss of something precious and prestigious.
It’s hard to hear some of the criticism of this decision, but I also know that if there were no petitions, no press interest, no tweets, and no disagreement, it would mean that no one in Bradford cared. And then we really would be in trouble.
In my many conversations with colleagues, fellow commuters, visitors to the museum, MPs, Councillors and journalists, I’ve tried my hardest to explain how we came to this decision and why I believe that the future for this museum—Bradford’s national museum—looks brighter than it’s been in a long time. I’d like to take this opportunity to share that vision with you, but first give you some context.
Since 2013, we’ve had to make some really major changes to ensure that we wouldn’t be in such a perilous position again. At first that meant cutting running costs. So we moved from rented office space to a smaller footprint in the main museum building, and we had the difficult job of making some reductions in staffing. We also found ways to raise our commercial revenues, which saw us going into partnership with Picturehouse to operate our cinemas. We then negotiated a £780,000 loan with DCMS to upgrade our IMAX theatre (the first anywhere in Europe when it opened in 1983) to digital, so that we could show ALL of the best big screen releases, rather than one or two a year.
By far the most important change we have undergone has been to clarify our focus. We are part of the Science Museum Group. Our new mission is to explore the science and culture of light and sound. This means using our world-class collections in photography, cinematography and television to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers from Bradford, Yorkshire and beyond. And part of this refocus means concentrating our resources on what we do best, and what we are obliged to do—be a museum. Museums are and can be many things, including places of entertainment and art, but at their heart they are places that conserve and preserve historic collections on their specialist subject areas, to inspire and educate future generations. In a time of limited resources and as we refocus our mission, we can no longer do everything we once did.
We started this journey over 18 months ago. Since then we have changed our schools programmes to concentrate on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), supported by investment from Bradford Council which has ensured we are able to dramatically extend the work we do in the district. We received funding from Government to deliver three contemporary science festivals which were hugely successful and we initiated a new programme of Lates. We were a key partner in the Bradford Science Festival and a host venue for the Fringe programme, which showcased some of the best research from the University of Bradford and the UK.
The decision to transfer the Royal Photographic Society collection—as well as some other photography holdings that can broadly be described as ‘art photography’—came from two powerful motives: firstly, the need to focus our activity and our limited resources on those areas of our collection that can best help us explore the science and technology of light and sound; and secondly, to ensure that those collections that don’t directly help us to do that—like the RPS collection—find a home where they can be accessed and enjoyed by the public and researchers alike. The RPS collection is a treasure trove of its kind—and a wonderful public asset for the UK. I believe its transfer secures the best future for that collection, as well as helping to secure the long-term future of this museum.
When the transfer is complete—towards the end of this year—we will still have a collection of over 3 million photography objects. 3 million objects. We will, for example retain photographic collections such as the Kodak Collection, which charts the development of the photographic process; The Daily Herald Archive, a unique newspaper archive that demonstrates the cultural impact of photography; and the Impressions Gallery Archive, a wonderful collection that is so very relevant to Bradford. These are all nationally significant photographs, many of which haven’t had prominence to date. We will also continue to hold many truly unique, astounding world firsts, such as the equipment used by John Logie Baird to make the first true television pictures, and the cameras used by Louis Le Prince in Leeds to capture the first ever moving images.
As well as the collections transfer there has been news about the International Film Festival. I’d like to reiterate that film remains a very important part of our future plans, but our festival programme, as it stood, was unsustainable. We are continuing to do film festivals of international stature—such as an extended Widescreen Weekend—that welcome guest speakers and cinemagoers from around the world. We are proud that Bradford is a UNESCO City of Film, and we truly welcome opportunities to work with other organisations who can help us make this city the place to see and experience film.
So my focus is on the future. Over the next year, with a £1.5m investment from the Science Museum Group, we will be creating a world-class interactive gallery to bring the science of light, sound and perception to life. It is the single biggest investment in the Museum since 2010 and I hope it gives the loudest possible response to those people who have asked me “Is the museum about to close?”
This gallery will breathe new life into the museum—a museum that will always be defined by its collections and as an inspiring place for future generations. And looking forward we are already planning for the next major investment—a new object-rich gallery, what we’re calling a Treasures Gallery—that will for the first time bring together all of those extraordinary objects in our collection that can tell the complete story of the development of light and sound technologies.
Stick with us. I want to make you all as proud of this museum as it’s possible to be.