The UK’s largest permanent photography display has been completed inside the V&A Museum in the last stage of several expansions over the past few years.

The museum is home to a large collection dating back to the earliest days of photography, but until recently, the only display space was a small room on the ground floor.

In 2011, they moved to the first floor, taking over a long gallery that doubled the space available. The V&A’s own collection of around half a million photos was expanded in 2017, when the museum took custodianship of the Royal Photographic Society’s 270,000 photographs and cameras.

That gave them the reason to expand the exhibition space to the neighbouring room, doubling the display space again.

Already now four times the size of the previous room, the space has more than doubled again to complete what is now the UK’s largest permanent exhibition space for photography.

It’s now eight times the size of the original ground floor room that used to house the collection.

The V&A Senior Curator of Photography, Marta Weiss quipped at the opening that at their current rate of expansion, it would take just a few decades for them to take over the entire V&A Museum.

In the meantime, while she plots her takeover plan, there’s the current space to look after. Where the two long galleries will focus on the history of photography, the new galleries look at contemporary photography, with a number of new commissions that push the boundaries of what a photo even is.

Opening with something most people won’t think of as photography at all — is a video screen, but then it moves into two large newly renovated spaces which will show modern commissions.

A last room lets you “step inside” a camera, as they have set up a camera obscura, where a person in one brightly lit room is seen in the dark room next door. The brightly lit room looking very much like a modern YouTuber set up, with a large circular lamp, but is actually replicating the oldest type of camera. As an idea it does show off the concept of the camera obscura, but is rather dependent on having two people to use it, one to sit and the other to view, otherwise you’re watching a blank screen.

A modest display of the evolution of the camera from a classic Victorian wooden box to a modern smartphone is a nice touch, although I did prefer the older wall of cameras that used to fill a space in a delightfully steampunk display.

However, what is likely to be the gallery’s most interesting space is packed full of photos that you can only see a few of at any one time — a library. A whole room has been turned into a collection of books about photography. Most are available to read on request, although they will always have some out on display for people to pick up and browse.

A small temporary exhibition — currently about the art of photographing dogs — adds to the collection.

It is though an architecturally delightful space, with the high walkway around the edges broken by two semi-circles that mirror the arches they cross. The thin balustrades almost, if you squint, form the letters V and A of the museum.

Putting the library at the heart of the new exhibition space not only reinforces the mission of the collection – for education — it’s a fascinating space to pass through as you move from exhibitions of the past to exhibitions of the contemporary.

The new galleries open to the public today, on the first floor to the eastern side of the museum – next to the theatre and jewellery galleries.


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  1. George says:

    “Took custodianship” is a far too mild way to refer to the stripping of the collection from Bradford an act of cultural vandalism for the regions that can’t be allowed to be seen in any other way. No matter how much more space they devote to photography the RFS collection had a whole museum partly dedicated to it previously. Now just subsumed to the V&A’s curious definition of what a photography collection looks like, very little depth but chasing masterful few examples by each photographer.

    • ianVisits says:

      The collection had spent most of its life in London, and just a decade in Bradford — while I get that people would prefer it to remain in Bradford, it was really just a temporary home.

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