Institutions and the Production of ‘Photographs’ | Elizabeth Edwards | Thursday, 15.09.2016

Patterns of Collecting, Institutional Mind-Sets and the Problem of Hierarchies

A few years ago I was talking to a curator of social history in a major British public museum service which I knew held substantial collections of photographs of the local region going back to the 1850s. I asked him how he thought about these photographs in his care, and how they related to the museum’s ethos and activities. To this he responded “well I don’t really – they are just there”. I have been thinking about the ‘just there’ quality of photographic collections ever since. How is it that a body of material, maybe 35,000 glass plates, of substantial importance in regional history can be ‘just there’? How are the tensions of specialness and ubiquity negotiated through institutional practices?

In this first of my blog posts I am setting out the broad landscape of photographic presence within museums, from well-established formal collections in major institutions with departments of photographs, curatorial staff and an institutional apparatus and value system to sustain them, through ‘informational’ collections that are ‘just there’, to the mass of historically significant yet overlooked photographs which are not ‘collections’ at all, yet which are central to the epistemological pulse of museums. My intention over the next few weeks is to present a series of ethnographic incisions into museum institutional practices looking at how hierarchies of value are played out in patterns of accession, collections management, and display, and finally in the digital environment. I am, of course, mindful of the mass of theoretical literature around the concept of ‘the archive’ across the humanities and social sciences, and that hovers in the background of my discussion. But here I want to focus on the Realpolitik of photograph collections and their institutional lives.

I am focusing on museums as such, because they have very particular institutional agendas, not other sites of photographic collection – archives and libraries – although the boundaries are, of course, blurred. However, such thinking could be equally applied there, as scholars working on archival theory and practice, such as Joan Schwartz and Nina Lager Vestberg have demonstrated. 1See for instance Joan M. Schwartz, “The Archival Garden: Photographic Plantings, Interpretative Choices, and Alternative Narratives” in Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions, ed. Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011). Nina Lager Vestberg, “Ordering, Searching, Finding”, Journal of Visual Culture 12, 3 (2013), 472–89. For an analytical summary of archival thinking, see Tim Schlak “Framing Photographs, Denying Archives: The Difficulty of Focusing on Archival Photographs”, Archival Science 8 (2008), 85–101. They too have their own value systems and hierarchies of the important, unique or precious. Until recently there has been an historiographical focus on formal ‘art’ collections of photographs such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the V&A in London. However, in many ways this focus has been misleading because it addresses only one aspect of museal engagement with photographs, and privileges one form of history over another. For of course museum practices have a profound influence on the ways in which histories are written. As is well established, all histories are texted through the patterns, values, ideologies and practices of their collection, survival and projection into the future as legitimate objects of study. History of photographs is no different on that register.
Plate store (29376)Plate store. Photo: Chris Morton, Pitt Rivers Museum. Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Many museums have been accruing photographs for a wide range of reasons, as examples of creative practice, as examples of historical processes, as information and documentation since the inception of the medium. Arago, presenting photography to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1839, stressed its importance in collecting archaeological data, Talbot did battle with the British Museum in an attempt to convince them of the importance and above all, application, of the new medium. 2Mirjam Brusius, “From Photographic Science to Scientific Photography: Talbot and Decipherment at the British Museum around 1850” in William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography, ed. Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean and Chitra Ramalingam (New Haven, CT/London: Yale University Press 2013), 219–44. Indeed, as Anne McCauley and Mark Haworth-Booth point out, there was little concept before the 1890s that photographs were collectable in their own right. 3Mark Haworth-Booth and Anne McCauley, The Museum and the Photograph: Collecting Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum 1853–1900 (Williamstown/MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1998), 30. Photograph collections, in and of themselves, are thus relatively new arrivals with museums and occupy and uneasy space within the hierarchies of value that make certain things collectable in museum terms and others not.

It was only in the interwar period that photographs started to be collected as examples of aesthetic and creative practice in their own right. As is well known, the Museum of Modern Art in New York started collecting photographs in the 1930s under Beaumont Newhall and was formalised as a curatorial department in 1940. Even in the V&A, which had been acquiring photographs since the 1850s, there was still uneasy tension between photography’s creative potential and its role in art and design history and teaching, a legacy which still shapes that collection today. Indeed a transfer of photographs from the National Art Library to form a curatorial department of photographs, with parity with other classes of objects in the museum, happened only in 1977 under Mark Haworth-Booth. As a measure of this late arrival on the traditional museum scene, the key international publication, the Journal of History of Collections, has not carried a single article of collecting photographs, nor on the photographic construction of museum values around other classes of objects in over 30 years of its existence, despite photographs being used extensively in its pages to document classical statuary, Wunderkammern, Chinese vases or whatever.

Yet such collections represent only a tiny fraction of historically significant photographic activity in such institutions. Photographs saturate museum practice in conservation, acquisition, and management of interpretation in ways that are both historically specific in terms of style and values they communicate, and integral to the overall history of collecting more generally. What I want to consider over the next few weeks is the historical significance of the presence of these other photographs within institutions. Because the new historiographies of photography which address what photographs ‘do’ as social, cultural and here institutional processes, is bringing such assemblages of photographs into the analytical remit, for instance Simon Fleury’s work on early ‘condition report’ photographs at the V&A. Yet as they fall outside institutional structures of photographic recognition and formal collection, their own historical dynamic and significance remains uncharted in the history of photographic practices and in museum history.
Lantern slides stacked up (29377)Lantern slides stacked up. Pitt Rivers Museum, c. 1975. Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

If these photographs are, of course, differently perceived because of their function within the institution, other assemblages of photographs have emerged as ‘collection status’. In many institutions, of natural history, geology, anthropology, or social history, for instance, there are major historical collections which are the result of what we can describe as semi-structured collections – photographic accruals around object collections, to explain or create ‘context’ for other classes of objects, what Gaby Porter has called an “economy of truth” constructed through such collections. 4Gaby Porter, “The Economy of Truth. Photography in Museums”, Ten.8, 14 (1988), 20–33. This accumulation can be systematic, in the way that collections have developed in some of the great anthropology museums, or entirely serendipitous. 5See Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton, Photographs, Museums, Collections: Between Art and Information (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Many of these photographs are actually also found as rare photographs in formal collections of photography (something I shall return to in a future blog). Yet these collections remain largely marginalised in museum narratives because they do not accord with the hierarchies of value that frame specific institutions. It is significant that many of these collections are referred to not as ‘collections’ but as ‘archives’ placed alongside other documenting materials developed to produce other classes of objects in a certain way, but outside the rubric of ‘collections’.

Thus we have three different but entangled strands of photographs in the museum, with differential weight attributed to them according to specific institutional agendas: formal collections with object status, recognised yet marginalised assemblages of ‘informational’ archives, and non-collections – huge arenas of museal photographic practice which are effectively invisible. But perhaps photographs and photography in museums can be characterised as what anthropologist Alfred Gell has described as a “distributed object”, 6Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 221–23. one that has a surface coherence – here that of photography – but is comprised of multiple objects with different microhistories and subject to different forms of evaluation. Different strands of practice form these microhistories, comprising influences, interrelationships, dependencies, practices, materialities, curatorial values and institutional hierarchies. This network constitutes a coherent ecosystem through which photographs are used to negotiate institutional truth values and thus the narratives that museums produce, yet it is almost entirely invisible in both the history of photography and the history of museum collections. Throughout my blog series I am using ecosystem as the linking concept for all these processes. An ecosystem is, as I have argued elsewhere, 7See Elizabeth Edwards and Sigrid Lien, Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014). a barely perceptible yet palpably present network of finely balanced yet vital set of interconnections, dependencies, benefits and threats, which sustain a particular environment expressed through practices, materialities, hierarchies and values. The various manifestations of photographs in museums are such an ecosystem.

This raises the question about how institutions deal with shifts in photographic significance and thus museum knowledge practices in which photographs are entangled, in all their institutional forms. Speaking to a senior figure in the field recently, I suggested that collecting patterns should respond to this new inclusive historiography of photographic efficacy. He responded that it was impossible because there was too much, “you’d have to collect everything and you can’t”, and in any case much of it was uninteresting (photographically) and had no place in an institution on photography. But this is because of the hierarchies of values which have shaped formal photographic collecting. What is needed is a shift in patterns of collecting from singularity and authorship to those of mass. The techniques here are thus not of the art curator perhaps, but of the anthropology or social history curator who is well-trained and able to make collecting decisions about the chaos and plenitude of contemporary life in order to build representative collections.

This brings me to a final element which has permeated debates about photographic collection and hierarchies of value, that of photographic materiality. Materiality has resonated through photographic debate increasingly over the last decade or so. In terms of museums, influences from material culture studies, which position objects as dynamic actants in human relations, worked with the new historiographies of photography to place an emphasis on the way photographic meaning was invested and performed through material forms. While material qualities had always been an element in older connoisseurial histories of photography, new thinking extended material value to other classes of photographs: early examples include Forget Me Not (2004) curated by Geoffrey Batchen and shown in Amsterdam, Bradford and Reykjavik, and Picturing Paradise: Colonial Photography of Samoa 1875–1925 (1995) exhibited in Cologne, Oxford, Daytona Beach and New York. Again the material focus emphasised what photographs ‘did’ as signifying objects in a web of human relations. I shall come back to questions of materiality over the next few weeks, but it is worth noting here because it has profound implications for the way photographs have begun to shift within institutional knowledge systems and the hierarchies of value in which they have been presumed to inhabit and operate.

Thus running through the dilemma of institutional practices and hierarchy which render some photographs collectable and significant and others not, is a concern, and perhaps bewilderment, about what photography is for, why it might be interesting, and what kind of photographic narratives have a pace in museums. I shall talk about this over the next two blog posts.