Between art and information: thinking about museums and photographs

by Caroline Cornish

A wet Saturday in Leicester may not be everyone’s ideal start to the weekend, but for the group of museum and photography historians who met on March 2nd at De Montfort University it was a great chance to meet fellow researchers, curators, and academics, and hear about photographic collections held by museums. The event was the one-day conference ‘Between Art and Information: Collecting Photographs’ organised jointly by the Museums and Galleries History Group (MGHG) and De Montfort’s Photographic History Research Centre (PHRC). Both parties were well-represented at the conference, including Head of the PHRC Professor Elizabeth Edwards, whose work will be familiar to many, and Kelley Wilder, whose book – Photography and Science – is an excellent introduction to the subject. A group of us with historical inclinations from Royal Holloway’s Social and Cultural Geography Research Group have been reading another title in the same series – Photography and Anthropology by Christopher Pinney – for our reading group which next meets on March 25.

As the conference literature pointed out, museums have been collecting photographs since the 1850s but their significance is often unrecognized. It’s a view I’ve come to share through looking at the way photographs functioned at Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany. The Museum began collecting photographs for display in 1858, but the oldest image still in the collection is this one of olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, donated by James Graham in 1864.

‘Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane’ by James Graham (accessioned 1864) ©RBGK

‘Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane’ by James Graham (accessioned 1864) ©RBGK

Before the conference I knew nothing about Graham, not even his first name, but as occasionally happens at conferences, a fellow delegate was able to tell me more about him. Graham (1806–1869) was a Scottish photographer who took some of the earliest images of the Holy Land, where he was sent as lay secretary for the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. Graham’s image and other donations received throughout the 1860s came from private individuals, ‘genteel amateurs’ who were equally interested in travel and botany. Early amateur photographers were as likely to have been members of the Linnean Society as they were of the Royal Photographic Society and moved – both socially and intellectually – with ease between the two.

By the late 1860s, the camera had become an apparatus of colonial survey, and donations to the Museum reflect this. And as an extension of this trend, photographs became widely used by colonial governments in an attempt to attract immigrants and investment. Kew obtained prints of many of these. Such photographs depicted the resources of the colonies and presented them as modern and progressive, and in using photographs in its displays, the Kew Museum was similarly presenting economic botany as modern and progressive. And no photographs spoke more of scientific modernity than the photomicrographs which the Museum began to collect from 1872.

'Magnified grains of starch from Canna indica’ donated by Edward Kinch in 1888 ©RBGK

‘Magnified grains of starch from Canna indica’ donated by Edward Kinch in 1888 ©RBGK

Unusually for the Kew Museum, photographs were one of the few types of object which were regularly purchased, as opposed to being donated or exchanged, and this indicates the value placed on them by the Museum. The collection reflects the work of a range of 19th and early 20th century professional photographers, including this one by Eadweard Muybridge of the harvesting of cochineal beetles from the Opuntia cactus in Antigua.

‘The mode of gathering cochineal in Antigua’ by Eadweard Muybridge (purchased 1876) ©RBGK

‘The mode of gathering cochineal in Antigua’ by Eadweard Muybridge (purchased 1876) ©RBGK

Photographs were deployed at the Museum of Economic Botany to show plants in their biogeographical context and to demonstrate the processes involved in turning plants into raw materials or finished goods. This one was part of a series of twelve displayed in the Museum to illustrate the method by which the Indigofera tinctoria plant was transformed into tablets of blue indigo dye, and was taken by Oscar Malitte, a French photographer working in Calcutta in the nineteenth century. Of course, such photographs functioned at other levels too. Images like this told of the human and material resources of the Empire, and, to borrow the words of Halford Mackinder, of the ‘super-added characteristics due to British rule’. They are indicative of the rhetoric of ‘improvement’ which continued to provide the rationale for colonisation in nineteenth-century Britain.

‘Beating – old style’ by Oscar Malitte, accessioned 1900 ©RBGK

‘Beating – old style’ by Oscar Malitte, accessioned 1900 ©RBGK

All photographic images are reproduced with the kind permission of the Director and the Board of Trustees, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBGK).

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