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06 March 2016

Bradford's Museum Matters

I was privileged to be in the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television on the day it opened. You could smell the optimism in the air.

Actually, you could smell the EvoStik - very strongly - as the carpets had only been fitted in the last few hours before the doors were due to open. We were setting up for a Pennine Radio outside broadcast. But despite the fumes I'm sure I wasn't hallucinating as speaker after speaker stressed this was the national collection - Britain's heritage - coming to Bradford, and coming to the city forever.

I never imagined, thirty years on, that dream would be comprehensively shattered as the status of Bradford's collection, already diminished by cuts and neglect, would be relegated to that of a retro-themed amusement arcade with the notional remit of helping kids through their science and technology GCSEs.

The museum, when it opened, had many benefits. It had the only IMAX cinema in Europe, capable of showing massive-format blockbusters on a curved screen seven storeys high. That was the big pull for mum, dad and the kids. A couple of hours looking at old cameras and some arty pictures and then, when small legs were getting tired, into the big auditorium to watch "To Fly" or "The Dream Is Alive" ... titles which could just as well describe the building they were shown in as the images on the screen.

That auditorium was gifted to the museum by Bradford Council. The grey, brutalist, concrete structure that houses the museum behind the glass facade was intended to be the Wardley Theatre, a replacement for the twee and old-fashioned Alhambra just a stone's throw away, and a tribute to the visionary planner who did so much to rid Bradford of eyesores such as the Swan Arcade, and who gifted us the twin towers of the north - Central House and Forster House - as his monument. At least they're gone.

Thankfully money ran out before that final vandalism was done, but the unexpected bonus was a half completed shell which, with some tweaks, became a national treasurehouse. The bar and foyer areas became galleries, and the planned underground car park was transformed into a vault for artistic gold. The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television - Bradford's museum - was born. All for a peppercorn rent.

From the start it was made clear by all concerned, including the Museum's first Keeper, Colin Ford, that art and technology went hand in hand. An understanding of the image - Photography, Film and Television - embraced both the kit that produced the images and the artistic genius that created the icons that technology captured in silver bromide, celluloid and cathode rays.

The museum also hosted live production with GMTV, the BBC and Channel 4 all at various times basing contribution studios in the complex. It was the place to be for the media. Behind the scenes students learnt the craft of the image in training studios. The building, as well as the dream, was well and truly alive.

World class photographic exhibitions opened in Bradford. And with that came the first intimations of resentment, envy and bile from the Metropolitan cliques. I recall going to openings as a Pennine Radio reporter where representatives of the London-based media, livid with entitlement, railed against the unfairness of being forced to travel two and a half hours away from London to see a show.

Even in the early days an elite believed a true national collection was too good for the North.
The name - the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television - was unambiguous. But, as in so many fields, the internet changed all that. what to do with all the digital images of the new web age? They didn't fit the neat box. "National Museum of Photography, Film, TV and the Internet" would be too unwieldy, not that the original rolled easily off the tongue. So they went with "National Media Museum", and that was the start of a slippery slope.

What exactly is a media museum? Not a place to premiere world class photographic exhibitions. They can open in London, with some pictures shunted up north once everyone who matters has had a look, and the show's been written up by lazy journos cosy within their comfort Zone 1.

Not a place for cinema, with prestigious events like the Bradford International Film Festival and the exciting Bollywood showcase Bite the Mango, which opened my eyes and many others to the delights of South Asian cinema, gone.

Not a place for art at all, much. The inspiring, airy foyer with an open, inviting bookshop selling scholarly titles and world film posters alongside 3D glasses and model dinosaurs has been replaced with a white, slab-sided gallery devoted to the fad tech of the early noughties. No doubt Stanley Wardley would have heartily approved. The sweeping stairway to the IMAX auditorium now opens from a grim corridor, smelling of wee from the nearby toilets, lined with benches for school parties to assemble. Film programming has been handed over to a national cinema chain.

The interactive galleries too often have exhibits broken - a far cry from the days when I interviewed cinema technicians proud of the fact that the museum ran checks every day which commercial operations ran once a week, if that. The windows of the former BBC studios are papered over, Auntie long gone as the last broadcaster in the building.

So it's now easy, in this sad shell of what was once a proud institution, to hand the treasures back to London. They get the Royal Photographic Society archive. Bradford gets to keep an arcade of 70s video game machines for playing PacMan. The T&A reports another 85,000 items are also at risk.

I'd like to get another whiff of that optimism I smelled back in 1984.

That starts with saying no to having the national collection pillaged. I'm delighted to see city leaders of all stripes united in that aim.

It continues by giving kids in Bradford, and the region around easily accessible via that Wardley-friendly M62 and the M606, access to a museum that clearly celebrates both art and technology. Without that link, "Casablanca" is just a few hundred feet of celluloid in a can. Bogey and Bergman, and the vision that brought them to the hearts and minds of millions, don't exist in a sterile STEM cocoon.

It ends by making the cultural ambition of the Northern Powerhouse a reality, if any politician really believes in that. Bring the  critics mewling and bawling back up the East Coast Main Line and show them the world outside the M25.

Save Bradford's museum as a world class resource - or admit London, like Rhett Butler, doesn't give a damn.

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