Report: CILIP Y&H visit to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, 09 March 2017


By: Laura Green, Library and Student IT Adviser, Leeds Beckett University

Insight: Collections and Research Centre is the library and archive service that can be found at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford (formerly the National Media Museum). This visit gave the group a great overview of the fantastic artefacts that the archive stores. The tour was led by Kirsty Fife, Curator of Library and Archives, and Zoe Wolstenholme, Archive Assistant.

After a brief overview of the service, we were shown the Print Archive, the majority of which is photographic (for example, prints, slides, negatives). Included in this collection are film posters printed by W. E. Berry of Bradford, mainly from the 1940s and 1950s and a collection of Daguerreotypes–the first commercial photographic process, invented by Louis Daguerre in the 1830s. We learnt that Daguerreotypes are very delicate, for example if the silver plate on which the image was made is exposed to air it will tarnish. A few weeks after Daguerre announced his invention to the world, William Henry Fox Talbot announced that he could produce images on paper! Insight holds approximately 5,000 of Fox Talbot’s prints, negatives, notebooks, etc. The earliest negative was produced by Fox Talbot in 1835 of a latticed window at Lacock Abbey and this is included in the collection. Sadly all we were able to see was the drawer in which it is kept as the image is so unstable archive staff only inspect it every two years to check how degraded it is – light degrades the image and one day it is likely to not exist. Fox Talbot never gained commercial success, but the importance of his work has been highlighted by the museum in its recent exhibition, ‘Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph’ and the BBC/National Media Museum documentary series ‘Britain in Focus: A Photographic History’.

Next we went to the Large Object Room. Walking into a room full of old television cameras was heaven for a television history geek like myself! Instantly people’s eyes caught sight of a fairly gruesome display of two animatronic gorilla heads! Kirsty explained that they’re from the 1997 film ‘Buddy’ (no one had heard of it!) and they are kept as they are a great example of movie special effects prior to the prevalence of CGI. Also seen here were ‘Little Ben’, a model of Big Ben used at Lime Grove Studios by the BBC at closedown, an incredibly non-discreet camera used by the paparazzi when they had been put under a restraining order, and the clap-o-meter used on Opportunity Knocks! Another fascinating item in this room was the Criminal Posing Chair, used to take mug-shots of prisoners. Put simply, the chair was made as uncomfortable as possible to ensure that the prisoners cooperated with the photo-taking and got it over and done with as quickly as possible! (There’s a great post on the NSMM’s blog about this very chair). The group was then taken into the Small Objects Store, which mainly consisted of many cameras! We saw box cameras, a spy camera and a collection of magic lanterns (currently being studied by a PhD student).

The museum also houses the Daily Herald Archive which is made up of approximately 3.5 million photographs from the start of the paper in 1911 as a union strike sheet until its decline in the mid-1960s. This room was an unexpected highlight for myself. The archive has been kept in the original order that the Herald staff put it in and is currently stored within the original cabinets. As we walked in the room, we were faced with lots of boxes with ‘Morgue’ written on them – slightly unnerving! Kirsty explained that figures who died in during the run of the Herald had their picture file moved to the ‘Morgue’! On the back of each picture is a copy of the article the picture accompanied, which is incredibly useful for cataloguing the images as they have a date and context for the items. Kirsty told us that they currently have a PhD student looking at how the Herald used their picture library, for example the reuse of images. This has been interesting for them as they have been able to see how images have been used multiple times in different contexts or completely out of context. Some of the images in the collection have been digitised, but it is unlikely all will be due to the expense and the high number of images.

I can’t finish this post without reference to the Library (we are members of CILIP after all). They have 26,000 books on site – a big collection, but unfortunately underused. The catalogue is currently not accessible online, but rather as an Access database! The museum has never employed a qualified librarian, but volunteers have managed to roughly categorise the items and attempts are being made to improve access to and usage of the collection.

This was a brilliantly interesting tour and it illustrated how underused Insight is, but also how incredibly relevant and diverse the service and its collection is both to those interested in social and cultural histories, as well as science and technology.


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