Photo News – Library of Birmingham Photography Archive threatened with closure and staff cuts

Tented hospital accommodation on the University campus: Patients in an open air ward watching a display in the grounds of the university.  c1916 MS 2724/2/B/4088

Tented hospital accommodation on the University campus: Patients in an open air ward watching a display in the grounds of the university. c1916 MS 2724/2/B/4088. From the extensive First World War archive housed at the library.

Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton and Financial Times photography critic, Francis Hodgson wrote a post on his blog, Another One Bites the Dust (22 Dec 2014), alerting readers to the significant cuts being proposed at the Library of Birmingham (LoB), which were announced just before Christmas, and vitally to the proposal to close the Photography Archive and axe the entire staff, effective from May 2015.

Understandably, Hodgson was miffed. He refused to remain silent and carefully articulated the reasons why he believes that this proposal is wrong, as well as pointing out how:

“A host of funders, years before the new library opened, have raised money on the assumption (and, I suspect, on the contractual guarantee) that works purchased would be available to be seen by the public. How are they to react to the news that those pictures will now be locked into drawers, hidden, inaccessible, and neither circulating as they were intended to circulate nor preserved as they were intended to be preserved?

“It is one shameful thing to say a wealth of professional expertise is going to be thrown away. It is quite another to say that if the photography department of the Library of Birmingham is mothballed, then a number of fancy donors will in effect have been lied to. The donors should know that, and react to it.”

The LoB photography archive houses a collection of historical and contemporary photography of international importance and in the run-up to Christmas, it was a proposal that could easily have been lost in the holiday period, something that the council may well have anticipated in the hope that the proposals could be pushed through without a fight.

Hodgson noted that the closing date for representations is Monday 12 January 2015, and ended his post with a clear rallying call:

“You haven’t got time to do nothing. Take up the invitations below, where a number of contact addresses are given. React by whichever channel you choose, but react.”

Go to Another One Bites the Dust for ways to respond.

I circulated the petition link and tweeted news of the proposed cuts to my network of photo aficionados and photographers, as well as to some media personalities based in the Midlands who I have interviewed in the past. We can still keep up the pressure and, for those of you who are not UK-based, this is a matter of pressing concern for anyone interested in photography and its heritage. The proposed cuts and the rather underhand manner in which it is being carried out is shameful.

Director-General of  The Royal Photographic Society, Dr Michael Pritchard, also circulated an open letter to the press in support of UK photography and our photographic heritage, urging people to sign the letter, writing: “This matters to all of us as photographers, historians, institutions, organisations and companies working with photography.”

This is the RPS letter in its entirety:

LETTER FOR PUBLICATION

5 January, 2015

Sir,

As historians, scholars and photographers at the UK’s leading academic departments and photographic organisations we wish to express our profound concerned about the impact of the proposed cuts to the Library of Birmingham’s Photography Collections and axing of its entire staff.

The LoB’s photography holdings are one of the UK’s National Collections of Photography and designated of national and international importance. Built since the nineteenth century they contain major collections of historic photography from pioneers such as Francis Bedford and Francis Frith, to later photography from Sir Benjamin Stone, Birmingham Corporation, to the personal archives of important contemporary British photographers such a Paul Hill, John Blakemore and Daniel Meadows, and organisations such as Birmingham Photographic Society. They are collections which document the history of both professional and amateur photography in the UK.

In recent decades the Photography Collections Team has successfully attracted over £1 million in external sponsorship to support their work mounting major exhibitions, acquiring collections of international importance and undertaking the vital cataloguing and conservation work required to make them publically accessible. It has also had a national profile for its work commissioning contemporary photography from students and established artists. The archive has also formed the basis of numerous outreach projects with culturally diverse communities in and beyond the city. It has also presented exhibitions internationally in countries as diverse as Brazil, China and South Africa. The Photography Department has attracted huge audiences over the past 25 years through a combination of its gallery-based exhibitions and outdoor gallery which has brought the collections into the reach of everyone in the city. The Library is now widely recognised as a major photography hub for new and established photographers in the West Midlands and as a model for the intelligent, integrated presentation of both historical and contemporary photography.

At a time when government is actively encouraging precisely the kinds of partnerships between public and private funding which have proved so successful at LoB and emphasising the need to reach out to new audiences we believe that the photography collections, in particular, at the LoB should be protected and harnessed for the social, economic, cultural and educational benefit of the city and UK. Whatever the outcome of the city’s funding cuts consultation, the fait accompli abandonment the Photography Collection is wholly unwarranted and will have a disproportionate impact on the region, the UK and internationally. If Birmingham City Council feels unable to properly fund its internationally important photography collections then government via DCMS needs to step in.

Signed by:

Professor Elizabeth Edwards, Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University

Dr Michael Pritchard, The Royal Photographic Society

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