Monthly Archives: May 2012

It was a wet and windy re-union for the Curate the Collection gang as we met on a blustery Thursday evening at the Dial Arch pub in Woolwich. Once assembled and after a few swift pints the group were ready to explore the Brass Foundry photographic archives. It was apparent that each member of the group had different expectations from the visit with many, including myself hoping for unlimited time and access to pilfer the riches of the collection.

The Brass Foundry building is itself steeped in maritime history and was built in 1716 as a response to low stocks of artillery in the surrounding area. Throughout the years the Foundry has undergone numerous changes, incorporating the latest technology of the day they produced and supplied the majority of weaponry and artillery to the British Armed Forces.

Upon entering the Foundry we met Jeremy Michell, the manager of the National Maritime’s Historic photographs and ship plans. We were given an extensive guided tour of the Foundry and I was amazed to discover the sheer quantity of the collection – some 300,000 historic negatives, 1500 albums and one million ship plans are housed here.

Jeremy explained the complex processes involved with the upkeep and maintenance of the fragile collection, such as maintaining the correct room temperature and using protective casing for the negatives. The oldest negative in the collection is a waxed paper negative of Brunel’s Great Britain taken in 1844. We were able to view some of the oldest items in the collection including a badly damaged glass plate image depicting Scarborough beach. We heard a series of anecdotes describing finding negatives in skips, derelict buildings and receiving anonymous donations – often these donated and acquired pieces have no annotation and are badly damaged, making cataloguing practically impossible.

Unfortunately only a minute proportion of the physical collection has been digitalised and is currently accessible to the public. This is available on-line via Flickr Commons or through the Historic photographs. Unfortunately the digitalisation process within Museum environment takes a significant amount of time and generally this selection process is dictated by a photograph’s relevance to an upcoming exhibition. In this regard we viewed a series of recently digitalised maritime images that had been exhibited from photographers: Tarry Adams, Bedford Lemere and Alan Villiers. Individual access to the collection is available to general public or for researching students but only by appointment.

It is frightening to imagine what treasures will never see the light of day from the collection at the Brass Foundry. I got the sense that the Curators and the National Maritime Museum in general see these images as closely guarded historical documents and as such offer insight location, historical events and people in the image. There seems to be a lack of artistic appreciation for the variety of unusual and standalone images in the collection, raising an important question concerning the value attributed to each photograph when interpreted by an audience with different aesthetic interests. Our project demonstrates just one way that this ‘nautical’ collection can be used to explore themes such as the ‘weather’, ‘journeys’ or the  ‘the unusual’.

The creative process that we have implemented when short-listing  images for  display in the Compass Lounge helps question the limits of classifying this collection as simply a photographic record.

In my opinion it is the ‘unknown’ quality of photography that initially inspires engagement and subsequently this process encourages an exploration of our own identity and how we as individuals create meaning. This is just one interpretation of the photographs, but this highlights how wide-reaching potentially this collection could have on research or as an artistic tool.

Promoting the collection more widely and using it for unexpected purposes such as the Flickr Commons is one way of broadening its appeal and giving the collection greater exposure.



One of the things that struck me about the group’s first session was the wide range of ideas that were floated. As I worked my way through many hundreds of images I found myself thinking: “This would work quite well for the cold winters theme. Or that’s a different photo of an animal at sea.” But as my long list grew ever lengthier I gave up trying to bookmark everything and decided to focus on two areas: shipbuilding and local people.

I knew there had once been a dockyard at Deptford but I was surprised to discover just how much industry there was up and down the river. I suppose it’s obvious if you stop and think about it, but if it was a revelation to somebody who’s lived in the area for two decades then I suspect that quite a few more people might also be interested.

And I’ve always found elements of social history fascinating as well. The photo of one works manager and his wife suggested they weren’t living in a hovel. But what of the men under him? The annual trip to Brighton by charabanc was probably a treat that was anticipated weeks if not months in advance. And organised sports seemed popular too. It may not have been the utopias of Saltaire and Rowntree, but it might not have been all dark satanic mills either.

I liked the way they were separate strands, yet related. So far, so good you might think. And so did I initially. I had an idea that perhaps we’d settle on four or five topics from all of our ideas, with the best one or two images from each in the large frames. Then the smaller digital displays could be used to show further examples of those themes.

But then I tried to picture myself walking into the room, not knowing how the exhibition had been put together. Imagine a picture of heavy industry next to one of a cat, followed by one of a frosty foreshore continuing on to a coconut shell. Wouldn’t it all look rather random? Would I stop to try to see if there was a connection? Perhaps. Would I explore more if the links between the items seemed far-fetched or non-existent? Probably not.

And if people walk away thinking “I don’t get it” then I don’t think we’ve achieved much. So although several themes might be good, having one over-arching title to tie everything together might be even better. I’ve got a fear that in the rush to select photos first we might be doing the nautical equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

I’m mindful of what Jane said about how you assemble and exhibition. I made the following notes at the time:
What’s the big idea? What are the key messages? How should it be organised?

This might be a slightly contrived, but it might also give us something to think about. When I was asking myself how I’d tie my choices together, and how images that I’d liked just failed to make the cut might be part of the smaller digital displays I came up with: “Home and away, at work and play”.

Home and away:
Not only did London receive ships from near and far (coals from Newcastle, tea and spice from the east) it also produced ships that went to all points. Some of which returned to be used as prison or smallpox hulks, or be broken up only a few miles from where they had been launched, having sailed countless miles in between.

Work and play:
Cricket, football and rowing were the obvious pastimes at home. But if you were away, then the ship’s pet or dressing up in drag in a concert party might be the only diversions you had for a year.

See where this might lead? My choice of a rowing picture and somebody else liking a cricket or cat image could be more related or connected than we first thought. As I said, my “working title” is slightly contrived in that it started out as a way of rationalising my choices. But take that idea, play with it and adapt it, and we could come up with the best of both worlds, one theme that encompasses several.

I think we need to look at the big picture first, then concentrate on the individual images after.