This is a joke, right?

February 24 2012

Image of This is a joke, right?

Picture: The Guardian

A reader has alerted me to a seemingly quite staggering story about the Tate and the V&A throwing out their photographic archive. In fact, it's so bonkers, I can't believe it. From The Guardian:

Art historians have been disturbed by allegations that the Tate was about to dump its invaluable photographic archive in a skip when another institution realised its importance and rescued it, and that the Victoria & Albert Museum has already destroyed its own thematic archive. Curators, who consider such resources vital, were not consulted.

The archives were full of photographs of artworks from their collections and beyond – crucial visual histories, invaluable for comparative research and for studying any deterioration as a result of time or restoration.

Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a UK educational charity with links to Yale University, expressed disbelief that the Tate, as the holder of a national collection of British art from the Tudors onwards, did not treasure its archive.

Allen says he received a call out of the blue from a "low-ranking" Tate employee, who told him: "Someone said … you might like the curatorial photo archive because we're about to throw it on to a skip."

Fortunately, Brian Allen sent some vans round to the Tate's skip, and rescued the archive. It is now safely stored at the Paul Mellon Centre. But alas, nobody was able to rescue the V&A's archive, which has been lost:

The V&A admitted dumping archival material using "a secure data disposal service". A spokeswoman denied the decision was a mistake, explaining that in removing the picture archive in 2007 to make way for new gallery space, it believed that a thematic archive "wasn't a method of classification that was really necessary any longer", as it had duplicates of photographs and digital files.

In case you were the ****** ***** *** plonker at the Tate who decided to chuck the archive out, here's why old fashioned photographs of paintings are of invaluable help to art historians.

1 - pictures change over the years, sometimes quite radically, and mainly as a result of restoration. A careful comparison between, say, a photograph of painting taken in 1935 at an auction, and the same picture today can be revealing. Sometimes, pictures lose their recent provenance, and are mistaken for copies, when in fact they are the same painting that was just over-painted years earlier.

2 - old photos often have seemingly trivial but highly useful notes on the back. This might be, for example, the view of a former curator on attribution, or a piece of provenance.

3 - digital archives are fine if you know roughly what you are looking for. But nothing beats going through the actual photographs. 

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