We're Not Alton Towers
Colin Philpott became the Director of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in April 2004. Since his appointment he has overseen a number of changes including a rebranding to become the National Media Museum. He spoke to Richard West about the place of photography in the Museum and his future plans.

Source - Issue 50 - Spring - 2007 - Click for Contents

Issue 50 Spring 2007
View Contents ▸

Richard West: What was your own educational background and what did you before this job?

Colin Philpott: I did a law degree at university but caught the journalism bug. I worked for the BBC in a range of jobs for twenty-four years: as an on the road reporter, as a producer, and then an editorial manager across radio and television.

Richard West: Since you arrived you have changed the name and the structure of the Museum, can you describe those changes?

Colin Philpott: The Museum by any measure has been fantastically successful over its twenty-three year history. Having said that, one of the things which we couldn't ignore was the fact that the number of visitors had declined since 2001. Whilst the number of the visitors is only one measure of success, it is clearly quite an important one, so I suppose my starting point was to say 'let's be clear about who we are trying to appeal to'. Obviously on one level we are trying to appeal to everybody, but you have to have a sense of who you are particularly targeting, and the way we would define that is to say that our first target is the general audience. Including families, but not just families, as I think that can give a misleading impression that it is all about just having young kids in here. The sort of people who are looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon, something that they would regard as entertaining but also informative and educational. So we are not Alton Towers. And I suppose everything that has happened here over the last two or three years has been about saying, 'let's regard that group and appeal to that group as our first target'.Colin Philpott - Portrait by Simon CunninghamColin Philpott - Portrait by Simon Cunningham

Our second target is the more specialist audience, the people who are absolutely passionate about photography, film or television. As a national museum we must do things that appeal to those groups, but not ahead of our more general audience. And then the third target group is the so-called 'hard to reach' audiences. Clearly there are some groups who for a variety of cultural reasons don't necessarily come into institutions like this. It's partly to do with race, it's also to do with other aspects of social exclusion of one sort or another.

The first bit of my philosophy was 'let's be clear about who we are trying to appeal to', and then the second aspect of it was just to say 'what's going on out there in the world?' Does photography, film and television still make sense as a sort of description of how we see ourselves and what we want to be? As the result of a long process of discussion - ultimately trustee discussion and approval, but also informed by two bits of market research - we changed the name. There are two motives behind that: one is marketing, the previous name was a bit of a mouthful, but the more important motive was to say, 'does it still make sense to have a name which is a list of three subject areas?' And in the end the decision was to call the place the National Media Museum. The subjects that we already covered have changed, and are changing quite a lot, and the boundaries are blurring. And the other thing we felt was that there were areas that the Museum has already had an interest in, like new media and radio, which really are a bit of a gap in museological provision in this country.

Richard West: You also changed the staffing structure of the Museum. Can you say something about that?

Colin Philpott: The Museum as a whole was a bit fragmented. There were lots of departments, so the first stage was bringing those into fewer, larger departments. Then the second stage of it was about saying we had a number quite senior and highly paid roles which had become part managerial and part curatorial, and we felt that we really needed to separate those things out. But the upshot of it is that we still have as many, in fact technically slightly more, curator roles than we had before that process started. And in terms of what curators represent, then that remains undiminished. Obviously, a place like this needs to have in-house curatorial expertise. In terms of photography, we have four photography curators: the curator of photographic technology; two general photography curators; and a curator specifically related to the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection.

Richard West: Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of what the collection consists of?

Colin Philpott: We have roughly three million images, in terms of photographs. We also have a significant photographic equipment collection. The two biggest single component parts - in terms of volume and significance - are the RPS collection and the Daily Herald archive. The Daily Herald archive is a massive proportion of that total. Our collection is very strong in early Victorian, and the early part of last century. It is less strong in more recent material. It's for others to judge, but most people would say that our collection ranks in the top half a dozen photography collections, in terms of significance, internationally. And I think, while of course, in the photography world that's understood and appreciated, in the wider world a lot of people don't appreciate the significance of the material we have here.

Richard West: Is this something to do with the identity of the Museum, even with photography in the name, people aren't aware that it has this history of photography in it?

Colin Philpott: Maybe. The Museum grew out of the Science Museum, and even now our collections have a science and technology emphasis to them. But despite the fact that we grew out of that, we are neither a sort of art gallery nor a technology museum, we are somewhere in the middle. We are interested in technology, we are interested in the aesthetics, but actually what we are most interested in is the social cultural significance. Whether people understand that - which I suppose is your question - I would hope with the title National Media Museum, people would assume that a media museum would be talking about all of those things.

Richard West: My interest is how photography is pitched in this. If you look at national photography collections, the V&A is the 'collection of the art of photography'. Can you summarise what the photography collection in the Media Museum is?

Colin Philpott: As with most museum collections, if we were all starting again, you wouldn't necessarily end up where you are now, because the collections have developed organically. I suppose it goes back to the central question, is there a difference between art photography and everything else? I know there will be a variety of views about this, but if we stage a photography exhibition here people will appreciate it in a variety of different ways. Some will be particularly interested in the aesthetics of the pictures, some will be interested in what the images are about and the social, political and cultural significance, and some will be interested in the technology. And indeed, a lot of people will be interested in all three. That's the approach that we take in terms of how we interpret photography for our audiences, and I don't think that produces a sharp division between art photography and everything else.

Richard West: Are all parts of the collection equal? It there competition for resources and exhibition space?

Colin Philpott: In terms of our temporary exhibition programme, at the moment, a significant majority of our temporary shows, are photography shows and we want to make a bit of a change in that because we think we should be reflecting the range of our remit. Nevertheless, photography is still going to have the lion's share. To answer your question about competition, I go back to where we started: the way I would approach it is not to say, 'right, its photography's turn now, then its television's turn'. The way we would approach what we do next, in terms of big developments, will be governed by what we think the overall need is, what's practical with space, and what we think we can raise money for most easily.

Richard West: Coming at it from a sectoral interest, it seems that the photography collections are culturally richer because you have the technologies and also a massive, as you say, 'world class' collection of images which isn't present in the film or television collections.

Colin Philpott: In the end, as a museum, what we are about is interpreting things for audiences and telling stories about these particular subject areas. So take film for example: yes, our film collection is predominantly a collection of film technology. One of the ambitions that we announced as part of our relaunch was to create a proper film gallery. There have been none such, really, in this country, and we've already had discussions about how we can work together with the BFI. Yes, of course, there's competition between different museums, but it is predicated on people collaborating to achieve something which is of public benefit. And in virtually every aspect of the plans that we've got, that principle will apply.

Richard West: Photography is incredibly strong in the Museum and now it's competing with more subject areas within your expanded remit. There's more competition for staff and exhibition space, and you've just said that in the temporary exhibition space there will be less room for photographic exhibitions. Given that it is an internationally standard collection, isn't that bad news for photography?

Colin Philpott: Well, I don't think so. For us as an institution to in any way diminish what we've got in terms of reputation for photography would just be suicidal. As with any museum, development is dependant on fund raising. Now obviously I can see the argument that says you've only got so much money, you've only got so many staff and if you're trying to cover more ground, isn't this inevitably going to squeeze? Well, the evidence of the way we were able to reorganise staffing is that we've created a new media curator without sacrificing curators in other areas. So, I'm not saying it's easy; you can't keep on doing that. It would just be wrong from our selfish institutional point of view - and wrong, more importantly, from a public point of view - if we were to not make full use of our photography collection. This is quite a small thing in a way, but it's quite symbolic, in my view, that we've got the Kraszna-Krausz book awards happening here at the museum in March. And we want to do more things like that, which are about saying, this Museum wants to be a leader in the fields that we're interested in.

Richard West: One of the results of your restructuring: you say there are more curators now, but you don't have somebody at the same level of seniority as you had before who could represent a collection on that level. Does that make a difference?

Colin Philpott: Well, we have curators of photography who can and are representing the Museum and the collection in the photography world. In terms of advocating for the Museum and particularly for the photography of the Museum, then I think that's actually the job for a number of people; that's partly my job. In terms of who will go to various conferences, exhibitions, photography events around the world and who are looking out for potential acquisitions, then the photography curators that we have will carry on doing that.

Richard West: Do they have a less senior role in deciding the future of the Museum and the way it develops?

Colin Philpott: How do we make decisions in this Museum or indeed any other organisation? Clearly it's not a democracy in a sense that everybody has a vote. I suppose one of the things behind your question is the importance of the curatorial in the overall governance of the Museum. Curators obviously have a really important role but they're not the only group; people who have particular expertise in staging exhibitions have an important role, and people who promote the Museum have an important role, and all of these specialist skills have to play into the decisions that we make. I appreciate that over the last few years in all museums, there's been a debate - sometimes a tension - between the role of curators and the role of other people who may not be subject specialists. I can remember in the BBC having the same sort of discussions about specialist correspondents in the newsroom situation: fantastically knowledgeable about their particular subjects, whose perspective absolutely has to be part of the decisions making process, but it doesn't mean that they should have primacy over people who are actually putting together the whole programme.

Richard West: Other plans: opening a gallery in London. Is that still a possibility?

Colin Philpott: Yeah, absolutely. Part of the broad ambition is that we need to, as far as is possible, serve the whole of the UK as any national museum, wherever it's based, does. The main practical way in which we are pursuing that ambition is the idea of a satellite in London. It's been going on for a while and a number of potential locations have come up and faded away. There are still a number of potential venues and partners that are on the table, and we are, quite actively pursuing one particular one, but I'm not going mention which it is.

Richard West: Are you looking for a collaborator?

Colin Philpott: Yes, with all of the potential partners they effectively involve a collaboration with another institution, and the one that we are most actively pursuing certainly falls into that category. We recognize that London is a whole new potential visitor base and also, particularly for us, it has the ability to raise the profile of the Museum, because - particularly with the subjects that we're interested in - a lot of those worlds are quite London-centric. One can rail against that, but that's the reality. The concept would mainly be a temporary exhibition gallery, and we would envision photography as being the main use of that space. What we would like to do - depending on the final amount of space and money - is some sort of small permanent display which acts as an ambassador for what's here in Bradford, but then the rest would be temporary space. We'd also like to do it in a way that it creates a space that you can use for events that we might stage under our banner.

Richard West: Can you give us a time scale?

Colin Philpott: Well, the one that we are hoping will come good, would be much nearer than five years away, but not next year.

Richard West: In a couple of months, the Tate is doing a big British photography show for the first time. The Photographers' Gallery is moving to a new premises. Does this change your position?

Colin Philpott: I think we recognise that for a long time there have been a number of institutions interested in photography, of which we are one. As the National Museum for Photography, I suppose we regard ourselves as a pretty important player in that. But we recognise we're not the only player in it. One of the things we hope to achieve by having a presence in London is to provide a venue where our collections can be seen and also to provide a bit more of a dedicated exhibition space for photography. Because I think it's fair to say that other institutions, yes, they put on photography shows, but they do that as part of a range of other things.

Richard West: Well, so do you.

Colin Philpott: Yes, but as I said earlier, photography constitutes a higher proportion of what we do in terms of exhibitions. At the end of the day, it's about the richness of photography and none of us are saying, I hope, that we're the only ones who can put on good photography shows. The more institutions that are interested in photography, the better.

Other articles by Richard West:

Other articles on photography from the 'Archive' category ▸