Imagining the Photography Centre of the Future

Background to the session at The National Photography Symposium 2011


What kind of photography centre would you like to visit? When people who love photography travel, is there an obvious place of photography to visit? And what fills that role in the UK?


When we at Redeye started asking around informally about this topic, we were surprised at what came out. Many photographers had thought about this before, and had clear ideas about what they would like from a centre of photography. Most had fond memories of particular centres, but some felt that existing organisations were not broad enough and that certain areas of photography were under-represented. People wanted to visit a centre that reliably had a continuous wide range of work and activities on.


Of course it’s easy to say what you want, but can such places be sustained, given the increasing volatility of public funding? Should there be more centres within easy travel reach, or bigger centres in the capital cities? Are there better ways of spending money than on a building? Or in fact would the promise of something physically monumental generate more funding? 


Photographers might well have particular needs from centres that are different to the desires of a general audience (if such a thing exists), art professionals and politicians. But photographers tend to be loyal to their medium and have a strong interest in it flourishing. Their voice needs to be a significant part of this discussion. It’s important to know what the broad photography community wants from their centres.


In the UK the specialist centres are relatively small and few in number. Meanwhile much larger general museums run occasional blockbuster shows and also acquire photography for their collections. That’s fine, but can be confusing for outside visitors, as most of them do not have continuous shows of photography. And there’s no institution dedicated to the conservation of photographs.


In the last few years there have been significant attempts to create large new photographic centres in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London, though so far, none has come to fruition. Why not? That’s the starting point for the Symposium discussion.


Compare the UK to the Netherlands, where in the last decade, in response to photography’s massive popularity, four new photography centres have emerged: Foam and Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam and Fotomuseum in The Hague. But can we simply import a European model?


Such a lot has changed in the last ten years that’s likely to affect what a photography centre does. For instance:

  • Far more people take photos, which probably means that many people look at work in a more active way, and for a wider range of reasons. When you become a practitioner, you’re likely to be more interested in how work was made, how it came to be shown, and how it’s been edited and presented, as well as its appearance and meaning.
  • Many photographers have stopped using labs and suppliers as informal meeting places. So maybe they need a physical place to gather. Or does online social networking mean people are less likely to meet in person?
  • One of the roles of the museum has always been to preserve the context of a work, so that in a hundred years people have the best chance of understanding why it was made and what it meant. But for digital works, the internet does that job extremely well. A photograph on a blog or Flickr contains metadata describing the circumstances of its creation; it links to comments by the maker, and others by people who are viewing it, to biographies and reviews. As the semantic web grows, we’ll know ever more about digital works. And the web is an effective way to preserve images indefinitely. Does that mean a museum should concentrate on the physical object, or do museums need to find a different way to deal with digital work?
  • The way people enjoy looking at work is changing. A print on the wall or a finely made book is a lovely thing, but so are the latest computer monitors. In Redeye’s 2010 survey the monitor was neck and neck with the print and the book as the preferred way to look at work. The latest digitally printed books don’t smell as good as offset, but they look almost as good, and are far more numerous. A photography book fair such as Offprint in Paris contains a richness and range of work that could take weeks to look through. What does that mean for the traditional gallery show, and for those who choose what gets shown?

What are your thoughts? What’s your favourite photography centre and why do you like it? How do you think those centres need to change in the future? What sort of things are missing at the photography centres you’ve been to? Is the big physical centre really the most cost-effective way of building the health, knowledge and enjoyment of photography, or can flexible organisations, smart collaborations and better marketing achieve the same?


We’ve got a survey open – please take five minutes to complete it and tell us what you would like from your ideal photography centre. We’ll show results at the Symposium. See


And please also add your comments below.

Useful links:


Paul Herrmann, Redeye

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