Catherine Troiano on carefully composing the V&A collection

Mark Cohen (b.1943). One red glove, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1975. ©Mark Cohen/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mark Cohen (b.1943). One red glove, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1975. ©Mark Cohen/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victoria & Albert Museum houses Britain’s National Collection of Art Photography – one of the most important and oldest collections in the world. This vast internment of over 800,000 objects encompasses epochal moments in human history, work by great masters and contemporary genius, as well as some of the earliest known manifestations of the medium. On the brink of a new chapter, with the opening of the new V&A Photography Centre, the museum details its intricate inner workings and collaborative philosophy. Unseen had a tete-a-tete with its curator Catherine Troiano on how she carefully composes the collection.

Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury, George Herbert Leigh Mallory, Sandy Wollaston. 1922 expedition to summit Mount Everest. The highest photograph ever taken, 1922. Lantern Slide ©The RPS Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What (and who) got the collection started?

Catherine Troiano: Founding director Sir Henry Cole had recognised the appeal of still images from the outset of the medium’s incarnation. The South Kensington Museum – as the V&A was then called – was the first museum in the world to exhibit photographs, with an 1858 showcase of work by the Photographic Society of London & the Société française de photographie. Originally, photographs at the V&A were collected by the museum’s National Art Library, but in 1977, an independent curatorial section was established with Mark Haworth-Booth. Today, the collection comprises over 800,000 objects including prints, cameras, technical equipment as well as a library of rare books and periodicals.

What is the focus of the collection and why?

The V&A’s photography collection is extraordinarily expansive – some of the holdings date from the 1820s – more than a decade before Louis Daguerre’s announcement of the first photographic process in 1839. The most contemporary pictures in the collection are acquired within weeks of being made. This exceptional breadth means that the V&A is able to show an unbroken history, incorporating a range of processes, techniques and formats. A permanent collection display entitled A History of Photography is a well-cited resource by students and academics. When deciding upon new acquisitions, upcoming projects, displays or publications, considerations are always made about how to complement existing holdings or ways in which a unique perspective can be brought to a particular area of the collection.

Do you keep in touch with the artists whose work you have acquired for the collection?

The V&A has maintained a good record of collecting periodically from artists over time, developing strong representations of careers that span many decades. Of course, many photographers in the museum’s collection are well known and established practitioners. However, the V&A also has a longstanding approach to supporting emerging or mid-career artists. When making acquisitions of work by living artists, we are also often in touch with them directly and take their advice on presentation details such as mounting and framing. Many new photographs are displayed in our galleries shortly after they are accessioned, and the museum continues to keep artists abreast of new plans to show or encourage public engagement.

William Henry Fox Talbots mousetrap camera, about 1835, ©The RPS Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What is the best piece of advice you have concerning collecting?

As a national museum the V&A collects from a particular perspective. A primary duty is safeguarding the collection for future generations. Taking this into account, the museum is concerned with acquiring images responsibly and in a way that speaks to a broad public. Within this is a commitment to ensure that visitors feel represented; that collections are accessible and that objects are cared for to the highest standards in the long-term.

Where do you see this collection going? What is the future of the collection?

The museum is currently in the process of more than doubling its existing display space to incorporate the new V&A Photography Centre. In October 2018 an exhibition entitled Collecting Photography: From Daguerreotype to Digital will open at the centre, which showcases over 600 images from the very beginnings of the medium to digitalisation. The Photography Centre also features a Project Space, which will debut with Thomas Ruff, who breathes new life into early paper negatives, a Dark Tent, where visitors can view films about photographic processes; and a Digital Wall, dedicated to screen-based or ‘born digital’ photography. The Photography Centre will also launch the V&A Photography Library, a collectable series of photography publications, and the V&A Photography Spotlight, a dynamic, month-long programme of events. Future endeavours will ensure that the collection is ever-growing: materially, with new acquisitions; intellectually, with increased accessibility; and practically, with new platforms.

Roger Fenton (1819-69). Still Life with Fruit and Decanter, 1860. Albumen print ©The RPS Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How do you stay up to date on current developments in the art world?

We are a dynamic curatorial department who undertake many different roles. Our activities include organising exhibitions and displays, making acquisitions, publishing books, increasing accessibility of the collection, giving talks and seminars, conducting and facilitating research, writing academic texts, participating in portfolio reviews, photography festivals, fairs and conferences. Through this, we interact with a wide range of people, from artists and academics to members of the public, and are regularly exposed to the exciting developments occurring across the art world.

Scott's Last Expedition. A Dog Team Resting, 1910, Herbert Ponting ©The RPS Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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