Archive throw out - questions for Tate

April 5 2012

Image of Archive throw out - questions for Tate

Picture: Guardian

And the bad news is, it seems Tate doesn't want to answer them. To recap, in February it was alleged in The Guardian that Tate was about to throw out a valuable photographic archive. It was only rescued after the director of the Paul Mellon Centre, Professor Brian Allen, hurriedly sent round a van. 

In response to the furore, Tate said that it had always planned to give the archive to the Paul Mellon Centre.

In 2008, Tate decided that it would be more useful to scholars if this photographic research material on British Art, which had not been augmented since the 1980s and much of which is available online, were to be located with equivalent material at the Paul Mellon Centre.

I can tell you that Tate had not planned to give the material to the PMC, and that the story in The Guardian of the PMC needing to rescue the archive is true. I therefore asked Tate the following question:

Can you please confirm how the PMC was told about the decision in 2008, and when.

Answer comes there none... 

Furthermore, I suggested at the time that Tate may have broken some quite strict rules on archive policy, as well as its own guidelines on archive handling. (Regular readers will know that I sit on the government's advisory council for archives.) In response, Tate contacted me thus:

We would like to make the clarification that the material which went to the Paul Mellon Centre was NOT from Tate Archive.

The key thing here is the capital letter. The Tate Archive is an official public record, for which there are rules about making disposals. Not all archives at the Tate are part of the Tate Archive - and this is a perfectly sensible policy. At the time of the disposal, Tate says, the photographic archive was not part of the Tate Archive. 

The central question, of course, is should it have been? Following discussions with various people involved, I therefore asked Tate:

Could you please let me know what material, if any, was subsequently returned from PMC to Tate, and where that material is stored now.

Again, answer comes there none. Why is this last question so important? Because if it transpires that material which was previously part of the disposed photographic archive is now part of Tate Archive, then it follows that the disposal was not only incorrectly handled, but that it should not have occurred in the first place.

There is more to come on this. And it may yet involve the words 'cover-up' and 'scandal'. 

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