“Culture for all”: So why is the UK government moving one of the north’s finest collections to London?

'There Will Be No Miracles Here' by Turner Prize nominated artist Nathan Coley is viewed by visitors at Tate Liverpool in 2007. Image: Getty.

I can acutely remember my first visit to Tate Liverpool as a child. My mum, not a natural gallery goer, was looking for somewhere free to take me on a day out.

I knew little of famous artists – but one I had heard of was Andy Warhol, and I was deeply impressed to find that an actual thing made by this famous person was in the same room as me. Later I would realise that it was probably not made by him and indeed that was the point, but still, it left an impression.

It was not until much later, when I eventually found myself working in the arts, that I realised how lucky I’d been. Living in Merseyside after Tate Liverpool opened in 1988, I had relatively easy and free access to art works of international calibre. Not every regional city has a Tate.

I thought back to this when I heard that a big chunk of the National Photography Collection – around 400,000 items, currently held in Bradford at the National Media Museum – was to be merged with the V&A museum's Art Photography Collection and transferred to the V&A’s West London site, thus forming what would be the world’s largest collection of the art of photography

In the longer term, the merged collection will be transferred to a new “International Photography Resource Centre” at an as yet unidentified location – though the V&A’s planned vast new site in East London must be the most likely contender.

Meanwhile, the National Media Museum, a part of the Science Museum Group, will continue to shift its focus to “STEM” – science, technology, engineering and maths – and “concentrate on inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers in the fields of light and sound, as well as demonstrating the cultural impact of these subjects”. The Bradford site may even change its name, possibly to “Science Museum North”.

There is actually a logic in merging parts of the photography collections of the Science Museum Group and the V&A. The fact that the Science Museum holds the National Collection of Photography is largely down to the snobby historical anachronism amongst our national art museums: in the past, photography wasn’t seen as “real art”. 


Cultural powerhouse

There is also a logic to the National Media Museum re-imagining itself. It opened in 1983 as the second National Museum outside London (the first was the National Railway Museum in York in 1975, also part of the Science Museum Group). Since then, though, the Bradford museum has been overtaken by rapid changes in culture and technology.

For most of its history the institution was the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. But it was renamed the National Media Museum in 2006, to reflect the rise in other forms of communication and image-making, and a new internet themed gallery was instituted.

Yet even these moves have barely kept up with the speed of change. So drawing out some of the more fundamental ideas and principles beneath such technologies, and investing in new galleries around these – a £1.5m light and sound gallery will open next year – is undoubtedly a good idea.

Important questions remain though. Why do such new developments have to be at the expense of celebrating the art that is made by these technologies, which remains for many the most engaging thing about them? Also, if these collections are to be merged – and no doubt quite a great deal of capital will have to be invested in creating an International Photography Resource Centre – why does it have to be situated in London?

Why not move the V&A’s photography collection to Bradford, where land is cheaper, and the cost of living for low-paid culture sector workers easier? Or if not Bradford, why not to Sheffield or Birmingham or Newcastle, which so far lack branches of National Museums? 

The National Media Museum, Bradford. Image: DuPont Circle/Wikimedia Commons.

This move doesn’t seem to fit with the noises coming out of the government and its agencies. Those are all about shifting public cultural investment from London to the regions – something that, in terms of museums at least, began with the opening of the Science Museum’s York and Bradford branches. As culture secretary John Whittingdale recently commented: “I do think there is a danger that too much is spent in London and obviously what we want to do is demonstrate that the UK has fantastic cultural offerings right across the country and not just in London.” 

Of course, the V&A can point to its investment in the vast new V&A Museum of Design in Dundee as its commitment to displaying its collection of some 2.3m objects in the regions. Elsewhere, huge investment is going into the likes of Manchester’s £110m giant new arts complex “The Factory” and a £5m new South Asia gallery at Manchester Museum which will display collections from the British Museum.

At the same time as these developments, though, Bradford’s collections are moving in the opposite direction – and elsewhere, there is even worse going on. The Museum of Lancashire in Preston, the museum of an entire county, is currently threatened with closure. The Museums Association has estimated that 42 UK museums have closed in the last ten years: the vast majority of these since 2010, and in the regions.


Branch lines

Back in the day, Britain’s regional cities didn’t need London museums to open “branches”. Their industrial wealth, and the patronage and tax base that came from it, paid for museums and collections that once in many ways rivalled those held in London.

The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, for example, has one of the finest collections of art outside of the capital. Yet its ability to continue to buy new work in the later part of the 20th century was curtailed by industrial decline. The same went for other regional museums across the country – if they could stay open at all – hence the need for branches and partnerships with national collections.

Of course, such partnerships and collaborations should be encouraged. But with such severe local authority cuts, must regional cities merely hope to borrow what London can spare? Meanwhile, with the National Media Museum itself under threat of closure as recently as 2013, can even branches be sure to have a secure future?

The problem is cultural investment in the English regions has been sporadic and inconsistent. Vast new grands projets are happening in some places, while much loved institutions are shuttered elsewhere. Some cities are experiencing a cultural boom; others are approaching cutting it off completely. 

The classic argument for locating the likes of an International Photography Resource Centre in London of course is that more people will visit it. Hard to argue with that, but it’s not hard to achieve either, when a city has a population of over 8.5m and an endless supply of tourists.

Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikimedia Commons.

The counter-argument, from Conservative Bradford councillor Simon Cooke, is that it means more to have significant cultural facilities in the regions. “You could – had you had the guts and vision – have based this new resource centre in the north, in Bradford, where they would have been loved and cherished it in a way you in London can never understand.”

If the state funds culture through the taxation of the entire population and through the Lottery, which has a disproportionate number of players in the regions, then surely arts funding should be distributed in a way that ensures maximum benefit to the entire population? Even whilst accepting that a bigger city will generally always have more culture and thus deserve a fair chunk of funding, shouldn’t public funding look to support places where it is less easy to access and find other sources of funding?

No young person interested in photography or media in London will go short of places to find inspiration. In Yorkshire or elsewhere though, they might. As the only person from a family of engineers who works in the arts, I applaud the fact that the government seems finally to want to reverse decades of decline in this area – and indeed, there are many high-tech companies around Bradford who need a new generation of STEM students to be inspired.

But must only the technically inclined be inspired? Computer games, one of Britain's biggest software sectors, needs artists as well as programmers. Or, is Bradford expected to supply the technicians and London the artists?

What Britain needs is a long-term plan of cultural investment across all of the regions. One that develops and sustains institutions that are geographically accessible to all, provides regular funding that develops and retains talent, and ensures that quality collections are shared across the whole country. Without such a plan, pet projects and grand statements from our leaders about “culture for all” will just be empty gestures. 

Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen – but a good start might be locating the International Photography Resource Centre in Bradford. My gut tells me, though, that East London will likely win the day. Because in the end, London always wins.

Kenn Taylor is a participation manager and writer with a particular interest in culture, community and the urban environment.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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