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museums of photography

The Oxford Companion to the Photograph
Quentin Bajac

museums of photography. 

The term occurred very early on, with the appearance of the first studios, and was often used by pioneering independent photographers to describe their establishments: for example, the Macaire brothers in Paris at the end of the 1840s; and Hermann Krone in Dresden a few years later for the collection of plates he assembled to demonstrate his techniques.

At this time very few public institutions were interested in photography; the earliest collections owed their creation to private initiatives emanating from associations (e.g. the London Photographic Society, later the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), and the Société Française de Photographie). A precocious exception was the South Kensington (later Victoria & Albert) Museum, whose director Henry Cole from 1852 bought and commissioned photographs for both teaching and documentary purposes. It was there, too, in 1854, that the London Photographic Society, with royal patronage, organized the first photographic exhibition to be held in a museum.

But this remained an isolated example. Photography's entry into museums in the 19th century, eventually on a massive scale, was either by the back door of documentation (via libraries, and the archives of various organizations) or into science museums. It was not until the 1930s, and the delayed effects of the struggle waged by certain exponents of pictorialism since c.1890, that photography modestly began to gain access to the museum as an autonomous artistic medium. In 1928 and 1933 Alfred Stieglitz gave several hundred photographs to the Department of Prints of the New York Metropolitan Museum. (In 1910, however, the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, New York, had acquired some of the pictorialist works shown there by the Photo‐Secession; and in 1915 much of the German collector Ernst Juhl's collection had been brought by the Hamburg Museum of Art and Design.)

The inter‐war period witnessed a new enthusiasm for photography, whose historical pedigree was underlined by the various celebrations and exhibitions commemorating the centenary of its invention, in both Europe and the USA. The year 1927 saw the opening of the Kodak Museum at Harrow, near London. The same year, the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris dedicated one of its galleries to a strictly technical survey of photography and cinematography. But the movement was particularly strong in the USA. In 1935, for example, the San Francisco Museum of Art acquired its first camera images. But it was at MoMA, New York, that the first photography department in an art museum was created. Taking place in 1940 on the initiative of Alfred Barr and Beaumont Newhall, it was the culmination of nearly a decade of interest in the medium, and affirmed photography's importance in the visual culture generated by the Industrial Revolution. But MoMA, by virtue both of the breadth of its acquisition and exhibition policy, and of its definition of photography as both language and artistic medium, remained a brilliant exception until the 1950s.

By then, however, public and, above all, private initiatives were proliferating, the latter often from individuals involved with photography either as manufacturers, amateurs, or professional practitioners. In 1949 the Rochester, New York, house of George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, was transformed into a museum of the history of photography and cinematography—the first such collection in the world and still one of the most important. In Essen, Germany, Otto Steinert created a photography department at the Folkwang Museum in 1959. Thanks to the initiative of an amateur photographer and collector, André Fage, France's first photographic museum was founded at Bièvres. Interest in the history of photography and its pioneers prompted other local initiatives: in 1972, for example, the Musée Niépce opened at Chalon‐sur‐Saône, organized initially around the Niépce archives housed in museum in the town. Three years later, Henry Talbot's home at Lacock Abbey opened to the public.

Today, institutions dedicated to photography are both numerous and very varied in structure, approach, and size. Constructing a typology is therefore tricky. One model, that of the museum specifically dedicated to the history of photography (and sometimes also cinematography) in all its technical, artistic, sociological, and cultural aspects from its origins to the present, has found many imitators. Examples, in addition to George Eastman House, include the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television at Bradford (1983), which today houses numerous British collections of images and equipment (including those of the Science Museum, the Kodak Museum, and the RPS); the Musée Niépce; the Belgian museums of photography at Antwerp (1966) and Charleroi (1987); the Museum of Hungarian Photography in Kecskemét (1990); and the Fotomuseum in Munich. A second category is more narrowly focused on photographic technology, often particularly cameras: for example, the Swiss Camera Museum at Vevey (1971), the camera collection of the National Museum of Technology, Prague (reorganized 1983), and the Canon Camera Museum in Tokyo. At the opposite end of the spectrum are institutions dedicated to the art and culture of photography: the Musée de l'Élysée, Lausanne, the House of Photography, Moscow, the International Center for Photography, New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo, all have this in common; and in Paris, although chronologically more restricted in scope, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie.

A third model, exemplified by MoMA, is that of the fine‐art museum incorporating photography. Most large North American museums (the Metropolitan Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, National Gallery in Washington, DC, J. Paul Getty Museum, San Francisco Museum of Art, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, etc.) had either created photographic departments by the end of the 20th century or at least become seriously active in the field. The model also caught on in Europe: for example, in Britain (the Victoria & Albert Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and National Galleries of Scotland), Paris (the Musée d'Orsay, Musée National d'Art Moderne‐Centre Pompidou), Vienna (the Albertina), and the Netherlands (Rijksmuseum). Outstanding curators such as John Szarkowski (MoMA), Weston Naef (Getty), and Mark Haworth‐Booth (Victoria & Albert) have been important in integrating photography into the wider museum scene. Many self‐contained museums of photography are now affiliated to museums of fine or contemporary art: e.g. the Agfa Photo‐Historama in Cologne, linked to the Ludwig Museum; the Hague Museum of Photography built onto the Gemeentemuseum; the Fotografiske Museet in Stockholm, close to the Moderna Museet; and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography affiliated to the Ottawa Gallery of Fine Art.

A fourth, less common model is that of the museum or foundation created around a particular photographer or establishment. Notable, apart from Lacock, are the Alinari Foundation in Florence; the Primoli Foundation in Rome; and the Cartier‐Bresson Foundation in Paris (2003). Finally, many non‐photographic museums and other institutions hold extremely important photographic collections: in London alone, for example, the British Library, Imperial War Museum, National Maritime Museum, Royal Geographical Society, Wellcome Institute, and numerous others. And the development of the Internet has brought with it the creation of ‘virtual’ photographic museums—e.g. the American Museum of Photography—almost as varied in size and content as their bricks‐and‐mortar counterparts.

Quentin Bajac


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