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Article: Museum Dialogues: Building Photography Collections for the Future

Posted on: 1 July 2024

A reflective report on Workshop 2 of the Museum Dialogues programme written by Dr Michael Pritchard.

The second workshop in the Museum Dialogues series looked at institutional collecting strategies, digital practices, sustainability, and transnational collections. This was an ambitious remit and inevitably the day could only focus on some of these.

The day was introduced by Amanda Ritson, Manager of NEPN (North East Photography Network), and Dr Alexandra Moschovi, Professor of Photography/Curating, with Dr Beryl Graham Emeritus Professor of New Media Art at the University of Sunderland introducing the two morning speakers.

Anni Wallenius is the chief Collections Curator at the Finnish Museum of Photography in Helsinki and was part of the team that led the Collecting Social Photography project from 2017 to 2021. The project had its origins in the mid-2010s when it became apparent that museums and archives were not adding social media images to their collections. A consortium of Nordic institutions was formed. For the Finnish Museum of Photography with a remit ‘to collect representative examples of all photographic cultures,’ social media images documenting society in all its aspects fitted perfectly.

A series of research questions addressed how museums and archives could find sustainable ways to work with photography collections in the age of social media; how documentation practices should change to better accommodate the ephemeral social digital image; and the transformative potential of the social digital photograph for the photographic archive. Importantly, the project defined ‘social digital photography’ not simply as the image but as an assemblage of geodata, motifs, text, emojis, likes, shares, and networks. This posed significant challenges for a photography archive used to handle material objects or digital files with metadata.

The project identified three themes which it would use to collate images: place, visual and social practice, and viral events. Collection was via user-generated and selected contributions, co-curated which combined users and the archive’s input, and automatic harvest, although this last was technically impossible to realise. As examples, Ålborg, a Danish city was selected, social media diaries were created, and the 2017 Stockholm terrorist attack provided a viral event. Finding sustainable ways to collect was part of this project.

In terms of outcomes, the project created thirteen case studies which were published online. It developed a tool kit for others to use and set out guiding principles. The project also developed an app to facilitate digital contributions.

Anni emphasised the need to ensure people were at the centre of the project. It highlighted that the role of an archivist and curator was a changing one with new skills and thinking required. Ethics, transparency, and well-documented decision-making were essential, alongside dealing with traditional aspects of personal data, privacy, and copyright.  Anni noted that the small files with reduced image quality still had importance and constituted a new type of heritage object. Such pictures play an important role in people’s lives so they need to be collected as part of a community’s visual cultural heritage.

Dr Stamatis Schizakis is curator of photography and new media at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens. His presentation focused on the establishment of the museum, which opened in 2000, and how its genesis was rooted in the politics of Greece following the return to democracy after 1974, when the appearance of contemporary art and new media art forms, such as video and photography, created a demand for new cultural institutions.

The museum started with no collection so it had no historical baggage and set its own collecting criteria of presenting and collecting international art across all media, and contemporary Greek artists, practices, and works. The museum now has around 1600 artworks of which 160 are classed as ‘photography’, that is, not including photographic works that are multi-media installations, video work, or other.

The museum is now working with a new mission statement with a social and political focus so it can collect work and narrate stories relevant to Greece’s history—and add work from younger artists. Recent private donations, such as the prestigious Dimitris Daskalopoulos gift of 136 works has given the museum access to Greek photography made prior to the museum’s opening that is now not easily accessible.

In the Q+A Anni noted that politics had not been an issue and her institution was free to set its own policies, although staff attitudes needed addressing, along with the role of curators in forming new collections. Stamatis noted that historical politics had created a caution around cultural institutions and he had needed to convince an artist collective that its work should be collected.

Sustainability reemerged over the sustainability of digital collections with a disparity between what artists want and what an archive can do with a collection. Anni noted that the project had struggled to find a solution to collect the interactive environment of online images. The environmental impact of smaller files, although large in number, was thought to be better. The importance of hashtags for collecting online was emphasised, and participating institutions had created their own to support the collecting process.

Stamatis noted that his museum had no acquisition committee, but a more inclusive way to determine what and who to collect was needed. Anni felt that acquisition was never going to be a fully democratic process and it was right it was not.

The point was made that museums often collect what is left over, but social media images are collected as current objects. Outsiders from areas such as anthropology can be brought in to help make sense of such material. It was noted that contemporary art museums have always collected current objects and vernacular photographs, and digital collecting was a continuation of this. Collecting social media images could provide important insights, relieving the pressure of collecting the entire internet.

The two discussion sessions explored a series of questions posed by the organisers but were limited by time. Collecting social media images required quick responses, but also needed the curator to slow down to properly deal with them. The need for trust in curators and institutions to use collections appropriately was highlighted. Budgets and resourcing and the constraints it placed on collecting came up repeatedly throughout the day.

The two final papers were introduced by Dr Alistair Robinson. Starting was Dr Catherine Toriano, curator of contemporary and digital practices at the V&A Museum, London. The institution started collecting in 1852 in the National Art Library, and the curatorial Photography Section was established in 1977. The arrival of the Royal Photographic Society Collection in 2017 added a library and photographic technology in addition to photographs. It catalysed the establishment of the V&A’s Photography Centre which opened in two phases in 2018 and 2023.

The Photography Section displays many of its new acquisitions, which feature prominently in the Photography Centre. Acquisitions are focussed on different strands, which include the upcoming programme, thematic or geographic focus areas, and different histories represented in or by the collection. The Photography Section aims to collaborate and facilitate working with artists on contemporary commissions, a legacy of which is retained for the permanent collection.

The department has commissioned digital artwork, most recently from Jake Elwes (on view May 2023-February 2024) and Morehshin Allahyari (on view September 2024). Digital acquisitions benefit from infrastructures and frameworks established over many years by the V&A’s Digital Design and Digital Art curators, and they are an important part of the Photography Section’s collecting strategy. The V&A has an ambitious digital programme for photography and is one of the few places that curate such a programme in close proximity to historical collections. Being open to addressing projects case-by-case, together with artists, is important to establishing long-term digital collecting practices.

Dr Charmaine Toh is the Tate’s Senior Curator, International Art (Photography), and has been in post for five months having moved from Singapore. She compared the collecting practices of the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) and the Tate.

At NGS, Charmaine built a collection for an art museum that focused on South East Asia from the nineteenth century to date. This needed to be distinguished from other institutions in Singapore, which had extensive collections of photography but focused on their social history value. There was sometimes an overlap between collections, which had to be navigated. In Singapore, there were other challenges in collecting photography—war had destroyed much material, and the tropical climate had an adverse effect on photographs.

The history museums usually had fewer concerns about showing modern copies or material in poor condition, but as an art museum, NGS would always try to show originals and reject poor condition prints. When building the collection, Charmaine had tried to address the artificial boundaries between commercial, documentary, and artistic work. There were ongoing issues of decolonising the collection, and Charmaine cited the example of outdated language on titles.

At Tate, collecting photography started in 1972, and the Gallery appointed its first specialist photography curator in 2009. There are over 6000 photographic works in the collection. Tate looks to complement the V&A’s holdings rather than duplicate, and acquisitions needed to align with its broader art collection.

Charmaine noted the Eurocentric focus on the vintage print and the privileging of it over modern prints, reflecting an art market bias. In Asia, there was often an absence of vintage material, so modern prints were more readily accepted. This privileging has implications for perpetuating a Western bias within collections.

Tate has no fixed policy on digital work but operates on a case-by-case basis. For example, discussions are held with artists and conservators regarding whether digital files will accompany an acquisition of a print. This supports long-term preservation and allows the Tate to produce prints for touring purposes. Tate has acquired born-digital work.

The Q+A picked up some of the points the two speakers had made. Both V&A and Tate show prints for up to two years before resting them. Digital prints present less of an issue. The V&A has, on one or two occasions, retained a set of exhibition prints where artist presentation methods do not align with museum preservation standards, alongside the set accessioned to the formal collection.

Charmaine returned to the value systems around photography and vintage prints which perpetuates a hierarchy (and maintains an art market). Catherine noted a V&A residency in partnership with Adobe. She felt that there was a shift in thinking and methodologies away from curator-led knowledge transfer to collaboration and facilitation, although curatorial expertise remained important.

Tate collects documentary photography. Curators were accessible to artists and the public. In Tate, acquisitions for photography sit within the wider collection and there is an increasing recognition of diverse audiences; the collection has also shifted accordingly.

A final question concerned the photobook which both institutions show more prominently than hitherto. For the V&A, the RPS library provided the impetus for this although the National Art Library (NAL) had been collecting photography books for many years and has a curator dedicated to it. For Tate, the acquisition of the Martin Parr photobook collection catalysed a conscious decision to build a book collection and display. For both the photobook allows the institution to tell twentieth-century stories in new and accessible ways.

Hearing directly from curators working with photography in different institutions brought a range of perspectives and differing approaches to their collections. The impact of digital technology both as a medium to collect and to support traditional acquisitions came across. As institutions increasingly look to digital work, these insights were valuable in understanding approaches and contextualising some of the broader issues and debates that surround them.

Dr Michael Pritchard
May 2024

Dr Michael Pritchard has had a long involvement with photography. He has taught history of photography at MA level at De Montfort University, worked for the British Library organising and cataloguing the Kodak Historical Collection for public access, and was a director of the Royal Photographic Society from 2011-2023. He has written and lectured extensively, most recently on AI and photography. His last book was A History of Photography in 50 Cameras (Bloomsbury), and he edits the British Photo History blog and The PhotoHistorian. He currently consults and can be reached at: mpritchard.com.

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