Museums, displays and photographs - Patterns of collecting

The history of photograph collections, their perceived function and role in institutions, is a major factor in the levels of engagement with the archive of the colonial past. Almost all museums have or use photographs in some form, but they are not recognized as part of the institutional identity or as part of the collections.

Some photograph collections are the result of deliberate policies of collection, such as at the Tropenmuseum, Pitt Rivers Museum and the British Empire Museum. Most collections are ephemeral accruals around other classes of object or accidental acquisitions, part of larger and mixed collections. The purpose of the photographs acquired might be informational in many different ways: to expand the range of other forms of collection, especially objects difficult to collect such as boats, houses, site specific materials, or even people. It should be noted too that museum objects  themselves are also embedded in photographs, such as conservation photographs, accession photographs and other images used in collections management. However, remarkably little work has been done on the history of photographic collections outside the large institutions with equally large collections, which have been recognized as ‘important’ in their own right. It is also significant that the work that has been done, has been undertaken in collections which engage with ‘difficult histories’, such as the colonial, where photographs can act a catalysts for developing relationships with stakeholder communities.

Photographs derive from many different sources, reflecting the purposes and historical desires of institutions, although in general we found a striking lack of official policy on collecting colonial photography, or indeed the colonial past more generally.  Collections range from those absorbing government material or quasi-official materials, to those institutions with a disciplinary focus, such as anthropology or army museums which have been collecting colonial material within those remits. In many institutions, however, the collection of photographs is serendipitous and ephemeral to the collection of other classes of object. Here, the photographs are viewed as existing only in relation to those collections, being viewed as having no intrinsic importance on their own.

Only a few of the institutions involved in our research project had written standards and requirements for the acquisition of such photograph collections. Most colonial photograph collections were gifts, and many institutions accepted them by default as part of a larger and mixed collection of objects. However anthropology museums still assessed the ‘anthropological content’ of the images rather than their references to contexts of collecting anthropological information in their decisions whether to retain material or pass it on to a more suitable institution. This is consistent with best museum practice, although with respect to photograph collections, there was little consensus about what ‘suitable institutions’ might be. There is also little sense of a shared archive across institutions with similar collections. Many projects with these types of collections, be it collecting or presenting, would appear to depend on individual enthusiasms.

Photographs are in many ways problematic objects. Their reproducibility and multiplicity runs counter to the sense of the ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ object and their entrenchment in discourses of explanation often places them outside institutional practices for the regulation, preservation and display of the museum collections. In a number of museums we worked with, although they had photographs in their institutions, these photographs were only at best partially catalogued. In many cases photographs remained uncatalogued or responsibility for their documentation had been devolved on to other agencies deemed ‘more suitable’. One UK museum we spoke to had given all their photographs to the local archives office because it was felt that the latter were better placed to care for them. Another museum did not collect photographs because this was seen as the domain of the public library. In yet other cases, photographs were entangled, unrecognized, in files of ‘information’, gathered around other classes of object. Alternatively  they were separated from collections and designated a supporting, and again informational, role as ‘archives’.

The lack of status of photographs in many museums also meant that the use of photographs in their galleries was not seen in the way object collections were – ‘to show our collection” – but rather photographs were brought in from elsewhere, from picture libraries or from both professional and amateur photographers (funded from a design budget). A number of curators stated that they had photographs in their collections, but they weren’t catalogued, they’d never really looked at them, and it was easier, and effectively cheaper, to get them from elsewhere when they did require them for displays and other purposes. As one curator commented: photographs were “just there”. Consequently the photographs inevitably fulfilled a generic and content-driven role rather than demonstrating their status as integrated into the process of institutional knowledge-making.

These differences in institutional framings of photographs, such as those noted here, are crucially important. They dictate, for instance, which photographs are visible and part of public narratives and which are not. They dictate the kind of language used to describe photographs, and their visibility and dynamics within institutional thinking. All these responses are in effect an evaluation of photographs as museum objects, and as historical evidence. Not only does this point to the marginal status of photographs in museums outside the discourses of art, but also it demonstrates the work expected of photographs in museums. This position became particularly acute in relation to the colonial past where histories were subject, in many cases, of a double invisibility, that of photography and that of the colonial past.

Only in the largest institutions with a clear curatorial commitment to, and on occasion with a curatorial department of photographs, was there a sense that showing photographs was part and parcel of an institutional commitment to ‘showing the collections’. For instance, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam has regular exhibitions from their photograph collections, often accompanied by a scholarly publication for public consumption, while Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has a special case, in the style of the other museum cases, which carries small changing exhibitions of original material, explicitly to allow the public access to historical material and have a ‘feel’ of the way in which visual information and visual rhetoric operated within anthropology and, indeed, within its links to the networks of colonialism.

This different appreciation of photographs collections has major implications for the ways in which photographs of the colonial past, and indeed other troubling pasts, can be made visible in the museum space. We found that many curators ‘hid’ behind institutional lack of engagement with photograph collections. In response to a question about why the colonial was elided in displays, the response was ‘we don’t have the collections to do that’, and that to fill that space with photographs was ‘too difficult’, photographs needed ‘too much context’ to make their inclusion in galleries as practicable.

However, while the history of photographs collections of the colonial past is very uneven and unfocused, there is undoubtedly a growing interest in some quarters in the historical potential of these photographs and their role in pubic collections. While official archives of colonial endeavor were made historically, much collecting of photographs with respect to the colonial past has been ‘post-colonial collecting’. The Hilleström collection in the Netherlands, existing of photograph albums collected by the Dutch army after the Second World War in Indonesia, or the IWI and Moluccan photograph collections made by postcolonial immigrants in the Netherlands, are cases in point. Other examples include those recently made available on the UK National Archives website (, the India Office collection (now at the British Library), the Royal Commonwealth Society, or those available in the databank of “The memory of the Netherlands” ( or in the European databank Europeana (

Increasingly the colonial archive, and especially in its digitized format, is a synthetic, and retrospective collection. In many ways its focus is moving outside traditional and conventional institutions, as various constituencies address the importance of the colonial experience as a shared past, however troubled.