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Media Space / Media Space at the Science Museum

Media Space / Media Space at the Science Museum

 

by Francis Hodgson (February 2013)

The conception and bringing about of the new Media Space in the Science Museum in London is a tremendous acknowledgement of defeat. One of the principal aims of the Media Space, after all, reiterated again and again in the Museum’s own releases and announcements, is to showcase the photography collections of the National Media Museum, in Bradford.  The implication that the Media Museum is unable to showcase its own material to the best advantage is depressing, although inescapable.

The Media Museum in Bradford, formerly the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, is itself a ‘daughter-house’ of the National Museum of Science and Industry, of which the London Science Museum in Exhibition Road is the head.  The new arrangement was conceived as the daughter-house implanting a satellite of its own, back within the mother-house.  Whatever the detailed works-around that have been invented to rationalise the position, it is hard to think such an arrangement ideal in administration, in budget, even in the use of space. Just imagine: no plan to make a parallel arrangement for the other great daughter-house of the Science Museum, the National Railway Museum in York, to gain access to London audiences in the same way could ever be approved.

So the London Media Space represents something strategically and administratively very odd. That there have been oddities in the run-up is incontestable, too.  The Media Space first began to be plotted at about the same time as the new Curator of Photographs took his functions at the Tate, and also as The Photographers’ Gallery was emerging from its years of survival-mode while raising money for its extension.  We began to hear of secret meetings of something called the London Photography Forum, where the heads of these new or reviving photo institutions would meet ( with a few others ) to plan strategy.  The Forum had as far as I know no formal remit of any kind.  It was a sensible idea, but it was overseen neither by the DCMS (the feeble UK arts ministry), the Arts Council, the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council or anyone else.  Hardly surprising, perhaps, given the then terminal disarray of several of these various bodies, but still…. Once again, national policy regarding photography was being evolved on the hoof by strongly vested interests.

The Media Space has already had a relatively troubled history, and that history seems also to have troubled the higher reaches of the Bradford Media Museum itself.  This history has been recounted often (cf. for example a good brief account in Source magazine, in March 2012) and there is no need to go over the ground here. Was the original director of the Media Space, the distinguished curator Charlotte Cotton, not the right person for the fund-raising and consensus-building job it required before it could exist?  Perhaps not; but that begs the question of why she was hired, and by whom, and with what real remit… Like so many photographic institutions in the UK, we were left with a strong smell of ungovernability, of inadequate planning and budgets, even before the thing existed yet. Cotton left the project amid speculation, and to much spin in the resounding absence of clear public explanation.  

It wasn’t even really clear that we were dealing with a new photographic institution.  Its name was the Media Space, and that conjured up a vision of archived websites and interactive mayhem and artists’ ‘interventions’ left, right and centre.  In the world of new media, all cultures are equally subsumed into a non-differentiated digital soup. The Bradford Museum’s own name change had clearly signalled a change of priorities from the old Victorian values in which the Science Museum is anchored. It used to be that the curatorial expertise of departmental specialists was the presiding culture; now we have to live with a new media concoction in which marketing and fashion are so much more important than the collections.  The Bradford Museum has suffered since that change, and it presaged ill when that M-word was applied to the new offshoot in London.

So the genesis, pre-planning, and early administration have been bedevilled. They are bedevilled still.  In February of 2013 the Media Space called a fancy press event to announce merely that the ambitious and potentially interesting exhibition Revelations, already trumpeted  (to “explore contemporary artists’ responses to scientific photography from 1850 to 1920” ) as the first to open in June 2013, would now not take place, and nor would there be any opening at that date.  Instead, we were quite casually told of a date in September of that year instead, and no mention of the show.  The new opening show will be on Tony Ray-Jones, curated by Martin Parr. 

In the history of any institution, a few months may be a small delay. Coming in the chain of false starts that the Media Museum had already had, this was hardly a good sign. Tony Ray-Jones, too, is still a neglected photographer, it’s true.  But to default at the first sign of pressure to a show taken presumably mainly from the 200 prints already held by the Media Museum and to Martin Parr, whose name alone almost guarantees press coverage before the opening and footfall after it, is a distressingly poor omen for the future. 

The pressure, it need not be underlined, must be from budgets, although the director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, didn’t have the grace to say so at this press call.  But how craven  –  how reminiscent of the troubled history of other UK photo institutions – to plummet even before the opening from high ambition to crawling along looking for cover.  The irony of that first show being devoted to Ray-Jones should be lost on nobody.  The best recent book on his work is by Russell Roberts, who lost his post at the Bradford Museum around the time when it turned ruthlessly away from collections to marketing.  Roberts could plausibly argue that doing that book was exactly what the Media Museum is now doing, although he did it with minimal fuss, and as a normal part of his duties, already paid for.

This is strategic and tactical lunacy.  Yet again, the provision of photographic ‘coverage’ to the UK public looks at the mercy of the slightest shift of wind.  What are we left with?

What survives is a simple and strong idea that exhibiting the old collections can offer a central node around which today’s ideas and practices can be examined.  That, in spite of everything, is a powerful enough core to raise real hopes that the Media Space might indeed prove a tremendous addition to the national photographic armoury.

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It was a pleasure, on a cold day in late November 2012, to accept an invitation to view the new Media Space at the Science Museum before the builders moved in.  The timing was interesting, as November saw an unprecedented coincidence of major photographic shows in London, including big exhibitions at institutions not mainly devoted to photography, such as the National Gallery (notably wary in embracing photography even at the slightest level), the Imperial War Museum  (the opposite of wary – flooded with photographs, but only rarely able to major upon them) and the Barbican.  The notion, in that particular month, that another museum in London was competing for the photographic audience was mildly laughable. A show called Shoot! had at long last demonstrated that The Photographers’ Gallery was finally getting into its proper stride in its newish premises, after years of third-rate work tolerated only because the renewal programme was taking all its attention. The Tate’s new excitement about photography had been much chronicled, and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent gallery came up for its first re-hang.  To announce the Media Space again in the middle of all of that energetic and mainly high-quality attention devoted to photography in public institutions seemed bandwagon jumping. 

It wasn’t.  I was shown around by Hannah Redler, Head of Arts Programmes at the Science Museum since 2004, and now Head of Media Space and the Science Museum Arts Programme, and by Eleanor Macnair, Press Officer at the Science Museum but seemingly devoted mainly to the Media Space.  Both positively overflowed with optimism and energy.  Here will be the café, here the smaller –more flexible – studio space.  The space is cavernous, overlooks Exhibition Road, and will by the time the builders are finished have state-of-the art climate control.  What’s not to like?  If all goes well, it can be a triumphant public gallery, right up there with best.  Bring it on.  Or at least, bring it on if you can get your administrative and strategic act together to do so.

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The Science Museum is not an art museum, and there is no reason why it should be.  The national collection of the art of photography, lest we forget, is held in the V&A just over the road, an institution whose holdings reach staggering depth and importance.  We know that the divisions in photography are difficult to keep pigeonholed, and above all any purported distinction between art and craft, art and science, ‘medium’ and art…. Yet in recent years, propelled by a complex of forces including the surprising resistance to recession of the art market, the rapid decline of magazines publishing in depth-commissioned photography of their own, and the rise of digital distribution of pictures, all photographers have aspired to the condition of artists.  Art, to put it bluntly, is where photography is at.  Art photographers are taken seriously (not least by themselves!) and have a chance of very high reward.  ‘Working’ photographers of various kinds are increasingly reduced to the rank of something which might be termed camera operators – efficient, but not special, and dispensable when a cheaper one comes along. 

But the Science Museum collection (which became the Bradford collection, which forms the basis for the changing shows in the Media Space) is not really supposed to be an art collection.  There is something odd in the Head of the Media Space being Head of the Science Museum’s Art Programmes.  It is an acknowledgement that the Science Museum’s masters think their audience responds better to that complex intersection in the Venn diagram where art and science meet.  There is, frankly, something odd in a great museum of science being so open about its desperation for art to pull in the crowds.  It may be right, for all I know.  It does seem that we have difficulty recruiting engineers at A-level and beyond.  If so, that needs addressing on a national scale. But I’m not sure making the science museum ever more arty is the way to do it.

Of course I understand that great art is sometimes made in photographs; I wonder if we don’t have enough spaces devoted to showing us that already. 

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I stick out my neck and say this:  I think that there are only two ways that the Media Space can really succeed.  The first is as the plainest kind of treasury.  If a couple of hundred wonders from the great collections at Bradford were exhibited in a glorious space in Exhibition Road every couple of months, with the proper interpretative help and the primacy always upon the objects themselves, we would be astonished at how quickly we’d be meeting unknown treasures, whether of art or science or both or neither, but just great, great photographs.  To run the Media Space like that would indeed be an acknowledgement of a failure in Yorkshire.   But even anchored in modesty like that, it could be a tremendous achievement.  Then we could really get to know the national collection. 

The other way is different.  Because I don’t believe that we need another showcase for ‘art’ photography on its own, however well curated, I wonder if the Media Space cannot become the pathbreaker of a new way.  The key for cultural institutions is going to have to be partnership and the joining of forces.  Money is short and is going to be shorter.  Stand-alone exhibitions, even with a café to rake a few pounds more out of every punter, are here today and gone tomorrow.  Far too much photographic culture has been like that in the past.  The new ease of publishing photographic books contributes to the terrible volume of photographic activity with no real meaning or effect.  So many books are now published, unindexed, a few hundred copies sold, and their contents, in spite of the internet, to all intents and purposes unrecoverable a few months later.  But why can’t the Media Space break the mould by insisting always upon two ambitious essentials?  They would be reach and legacy.

The great strength of the Science Museum is just that: it is not an arts institution.  Since the rules have been changed, it seems possible for a good deal of research to be supervised by museum personnel in alliance with universities.  I don’t think enough of that is going on yet; I know that very few theses are being supervised in the V&A Photographs Department, for example.  But that could become one of the sine qua non elements of the Media Space.  Photography has for a lifetime lagged behind other art forms in its scholarship.  What a great opportunity to invite research, to publish its results, to make it a central part of the photographic culture rather than the rare and struggling one it has been in the UK to date.  If the Media Space were to insist upon the primacy of research, it would automatically find itself in alliances across and around the photographic world – and not just with galleries and artists, but with great universities and museums in the UK and elsewhere, and with working photographic centres like newspapers and advertising agencies.   Turn the thing into a hub, a great crossroads of photographic enquiry, rooted in the Bradford collections, but expecting its results always to have reach and duration, and you have a blueprint for an institution which can thumb its nose at whether such-and-such a practice is or was or will be ‘art’.  Who cares?  It’s photography, and photography has changed the world and will continue to do so.  

Imperial College is just down the road.  A great scientific institution by any standards. Can there really not be any point at which a great photographic collection is of interest to the scientists in Imperial College? That’s where I expect the ‘hub’ notion to begin.  I want Imperial College and MIT and Cambridge and Vogue and the new photographic centre at Birmingham City Library and a hundred other institutions to second researchers via the Media Space into the stacks of the national collections of photography.  And I want their results consistently to be coherently and sensibly published, so we can access them a generation later.   Then at last, the collections would be doing the job they were intended to do, bringing light and learning to the nation.  And if setting off on that path means that a few humdingers of exhibitions take their place in Exhibition Road, well, so much the better.  But I don’t think I particularly want the Science Museum to sharpen its elbows in the queue of institutions showing us another regime of art photography.