Photography and the Science Museum Group

As the current Media Space exhibition Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection draws to a close at the Science Museum, before re-opening at the National Media Museum, Head of Photography Kate Bush looks at the history of the Science Museum Group’s photography collections.

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection at Media Space © Kate Elliott

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection at Media Space © Kate Elliott

157 years ago this month, the earliest incarnation of the Royal Photographic Society organised the first public photography exhibition ever to be held in Britain at the South Kensington Museum.

Borne of the sense of optimism generated by the Great Exhibition of 1851, the South Kensington Museum was an institution set up to promote the arts and science in Britain, later dividing up into the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The exhibition was well received by public and critics alike, with The Observer saying that ‘The collection is… the best that has been hitherto exhibited… there are many works of a degree of merit which may not be surpassed.’

The venue chosen for the exhibition was a gallery situated above the museum’s Refreshment Rooms – the very first museum restaurant.

Media Space Café © Kate Elliott

Media Space Café © Kate Elliott

Today, less than a few hundred yards from that initial gallery sits the Science Museum’s Media Space, a bright and airy part of the museum building dedicated to exhibiting photography across two spaces and held together by its own ‘Refreshment Rooms’; the Media Space café.

The gallery’s current exhibition, Drawn by Light, showcases the highlights of the Royal Photographic Society Collection from the dawn of photography to the present. The exhibition was recently reviewed by The Observer, and was similarly well-received to its 1858 predecessor, with the newspaper’s art critic calling the assembled photographs ‘a stupendous selection’ and a ‘magnificent exhibition’.

In February 1882, Captain William de Wiveleslie Abney, the South Kensington Museum’s Director of Science and President of the Royal Photographic Society on several occasions, had a letter published in the British Journal of Photography stating that ‘the Director of the South Kensington Museum is anxious to obtain a collection illustrating the history of photography’. This represented the beginnings of what became the Science Museum Group’s National Photography Collection – a collection of international significance containing some of the most important items in the history of the medium.

Throughout the 20th century, as the Collection continued to expand, the Museum continued to exhibit photography, with a major part of the RPS collection shown in the Science Museum at the end of the 1920s, in a gallery just below where Media Space stands today.

The Science Museum Group acquired the RPS collection in 2002 with the help of the Art Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund, which added to the collection’s existing highlights which include the largest collection of work by William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of modern photography, including the Latticed Window, the very first photographic negative. It also includes the largest public collection of portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron. Other exceptional holdings include the Nièpce heliographs, the Herschel Collection and the Ellis daguerreotypes, as well as key work by Anna Atkins, Hill and Adamson, Lewis Carroll, Roger Fenton, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson, Peter Henry Emerson, Alfred Stieglitz and Fred Holland Day.

Gathering Water Lilies, 1886, Peter Henry Emerson © National Media Museum, Bradford

Gathering Water Lilies, 1886, Peter Henry Emerson © National Media Museum, Bradford

All of the major movements of 19th century photography are represented in the collection, which is situated in the fascinating National Media Museum archives in Bradford. The major focus of the collection’s 20th century holdings is on British post-war documentary photography. The jewel in the crown here is the archive of Tony Ray-Jones (showcased in our exhibition Only in England, which is touring to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery where it runs until 7 June), but there are also strong bodies of work by Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Chris Killip, Graham Smith and Peter Mitchell.

Location Unknown, possibly Morecambe, c1967, Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum, Bradford

Location Unknown, possibly Morecambe, c1967, Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum, Bradford

The Science Museum Group would not necessarily be the first institution on people’s lips if they were asked to name a committed collector of photography, but the collection as it stands today grew out of the birth of the medium when exhibitors at the Great Exhibition were unsure whether to situate their photo displays in the Science section or the Arts section. They chose to give their display its own site as an ‘independent art’ and photography has retained something of this middle ground up to the present day. The Science Museum’s Optics Collection has many pre-photographic camera obscuras as well as an exhibit on the grinding of lenses. The Aeronautics Collection has an example of a microphotograph flown into Paris by pigeon when the city was under siege in 1870-71.

The collection also continues to expand, both in size and in reputation, as more and more work by a diverse range of contemporary photographers is acquired and a wide programme of touring and loans ensures that our rich archive is a resource which is shared as widely as possible.

‘Now, more than ever, photography plays a prominent role in contemporary life and part of the collection’s function is to provide opportunities for dialogue between genres, periods and other contexts for photography. Building and using a comprehensive collection of the medium’s various cultural histories, produces a greater understanding of what is particular, special and important to photography in the visual arts, media, popular culture and the everyday.’ – Greg Hobson, Curator of Photographs, National Media Museum, Bradford.

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection runs at Media Space until Sunday 1 March, and then at the National Media Museum from 20 March to 21 June 2015. The next major Media Space exhibition, Revelations: Experiments in Photography, opens on 20 March 2015.

The National Photography Collection is housed at the National Media Museum, Bradford. Find out about guided tours and how to make an appointment to visit the collection here.

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