The Victoria & Albert Museum, the V&A, has been doing a spot of trumpeting about its new photography gallery. Gone, they say, is the old derisory display and instead we have a gleaming new room that enables them to show off their collection. A collection, they are keen to remind us, that predates everyone else’s. Well, you can be first without being the best as the ‘old’ gallery comprehensively proved but will the ‘new’ one do justice to the medium? The answer, brutally, is no.
Let’s get the moan out of the way. If you were to take someone who had seen the old Room 38a space, blindfold them and walk them into the new Room 100 space they would not immediately be able to tell the difference. It has the same wall colour, it tells the same bitty sequential story of photography. They may have swapped some examples but frankly it’s hard to tell. The idea is to rotate the collection every eighteen months and so I imagine that means there’ll be a new Fox-Talbot process print, a different example of 35mm street photography and so on at some point in 2013, and again in 2015.
This new gallery also, crucially, has (I’m sure) less space. The old room had a bit at the back for temporary displays, the new one has no such versatility. Instead there are a couple of ‘In Focus’ groupings of a small number of images for photographers – at the moment these are Julia Margaret Cameron and Henri Cartier-Bresson. It can’t have taken too many biscuits at a selection meeting to think of those names.
So, moan over. Don’t go expecting depth and you won’t be too disappointed. There are some good images on display and I’m sure ‘photography’ is no more shoddily treated than Bulgarian ceramics. We’re a minority interest but at least we’re in. The V&A also does nice coffee which is the standard by which all arts and heritage venues should be judged. This does however feel like a missed opportunity – as if by attempting to cover the entirety of their collection in a single room the V&A has let themselves down whereas a room dedicated to the development of photographic techniques – such as daguerreotypes, cyanotypes etc – which focused just on the medium’s early years would play to the strengths of the venue and be different from displays and collections elsewhere.
All in all, it’s not worth a look unless you’re at the V&A for other, more compelling, reasons but should you be in the vicinity of South Ken remember to set your sights low and grab a coffee on the way out.