There is a striking statue of the great novelist and Bradfordian J B Priestley outside the National Media Museum, and we need his wisdom to understand the real story about the future of this Museum. The planned move of the Royal Photographic Society collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum has generated much heated comment and reignited understandable soul searching about the north-south divide. Yet Priestley himself remarked that he had ‘always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start’, and that is precisely what is now dawning at the Museum.
The tale of loss, even of cultural vandalism, being put about by some is simply wrong. The Science Museum Group’s Board of Trustees has thought long and hard about the future of the National Media Museum and the reality is of a museum that is firmly rooted in its community with a major photographic collection (which will still include three million images), vibrant plans for new galleries and bold new programming that, despite the tough economic backdrop, is already arresting years of decline. It is a story of gains, confidence and ambition.
The National Media Museum is one of the great museums within the Science Museum Group. With four museums north of Liverpool, we have the most northerly centre of gravity of all the national museum groups, and have consistently backed this up with investment. Our Group founded the world`s greatest railway museum in York (the one that brought Flying Scotsman back to life), created a national museum in Bradford, rescued the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester when its future was in doubt, and worked with Durham County Council to create a railway museum in Shildon. We have bold plans for a new special exhibition gallery in Manchester and, to complement the huge York Central development, a bold new vision for the National Railway Museum. Moreover, about half of our staff live and work in a variety of northern towns and cities.
Within our museum Group, this year’s star performer has been the National Media Museum, with audiences up 11% on last year. So why has it broken a pattern of steady and ominous decline? It’s all about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), notably moving the science of light, image and sound to centre stage in the museum since 2013. The increased focus on science is already working and reconnecting the Museum to the communities closest to it – the children, students and families of Bradford and West Yorkshire.
This fresh focus came after careful consultation and received strong public backing from key partners in the town: the University of Bradford, Bradford College and, crucially, Bradford Metropolitan District Council, which is investing £1 million in the Museum specifically for science education. The 2015 summer exhibition – Light Fantastic – offered a tantalising picture of the potential of Bradford’s premier cultural attraction, with impressive visitor numbers and a compelling new take on physics. Just last month the partnership with Horrible Science brought nearly 30,000 visitors to the Museum in nine days. People in Bradford are voting with their feet.
Our minds and money should be devoted to building on this success. That is why the move of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection – around ten per cent of the Museum’s photography collections – to the Victoria & Albert Museum makes such sense. This collection contains extremely fragile and delicate negatives and prints which must be kept in carefully controlled environmental conditions. Its many archive boxes have scant connections with the city and region and they were visited by fewer than 500 researchers last year. The collection is truly great but in the past decade or so we have not been able to allocate sufficient resources to do it full justice.
We could have opted for a quiet life but decided to take a tough look at a question that few museums would dare to ask: is there a better home for this collection, given we cannot do everything we would like? We looked for somewhere with significant resources, expertise and reach, both nationally and internationally. The Victoria & Albert Museum has fantastic plans to create an international photography centre and a commitment to make more of the collection by working with the National Media Museum, as well as completely digitising it. The collection will be accessible in the V&A’s Study Rooms, which were visited by 35,000 people last year, and will join their programme of national tours: over the past decade they have toured 23 photographic exhibitions which have been seen by 1.5 million people across the country.
An important point that many observers have overlooked is that the RPS collection only headed to Bradford thirteen years ago because the Royal Photographic Society couldn’t afford to look after it properly in their headquarters in Bath. The transfer to London has been welcomed by Dr Michael Pritchard, Director-General of the Society, who told us he was ‘pleased we can further enhance the RPS Collection’s stature alongside the V&A’s own art photography collection and make it more widely available to the public and scholars … The RPS is extremely fortunate to benefit from the support and expertise of one of the world’s most revered cultural institutions.’
Moreover, as the RPS itself pointed out, the move represents a homecoming and reunion for some of these images, which were once part of a single collection at the 19th century South Kensington Museum before it divided into the V&A and the Science Museum. On learning of the proposed transfer in early December last year, Michael put on record some expectations such as maintaining commitments over access, ongoing digitisation and that the collection would remain a distinct entity, intellectually and physically – areas all addressed through the V&A’s plans. ‘Assuming agreement on those points,’ he said ‘the RPS offered its support for the transfer as being in the best interests of the RPS collection’.
The National Media Museum still faces challenges, among them a name that has never connected with existing and potential audiences. This is why the Group has committed to supporting the museum, by raising £7.5 million over a five-year period to fund a new interactive gallery, an innovative sphere on which to display the latest satellite imagery, and new galleries filled with its most extraordinary collections of film, animation, TV and photographic technology. Glorious collections will move from the basement stores to public display. These are gains for the public.
And there is more. The science focus is proving so fruitful that the Group will move prize items of key cultural importance (including landmark technology by Herschel, Marconi and Wheatstone) from London to be displayed in the new galleries. We are also committed to working with a wide range of partners to develop new festivals and support the cultural life of the region.
Our Bradford museum is not a ‘satellite’ of our Group, as some have put it, but an equal partner. To underline this, the Board of Trustees had its latest strategy meeting in Bradford and, only last week, the Group held its biggest annual gathering of staff in the museum and adjoining council offices.
To conclude, we are building a better museum, one that will remain a cultural powerhouse. Bradford is one of the most surprising cities in Britain and the National Media Museum will be a key supporter of its culturally rich, diverse and youthful future.
Dame Mary Archer is Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Science Museum Group.