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The National Media Museum

Sean Smith goes on a visit to the an old Bradford favourite and wonders if it's keeping up

Published on August 7th 2008.

The National Media Museum

STANDING in front of the National Media Museum, coat-tails flapping in the breeze, JB Priestley looks out over a vista that pays grim testament to the terrible things we did to our cities in the sixties and seventies.

Closer to home, Sunny Snaps documents beach and street photography, with hundreds of cheap and cheerful snaps of the British at their leisure, poking through comical ‘head through the hole’ vignettes, strolling along the prom, sitting on a motorcycle

If Bradford’s bid for Lottery funding had been successful last year, the ambition of Will Alsop to create a ‘Park in the Heart’ of the city might have come to fruition - and Ian Judd’s sculpture of Bradford’s most famous literary son would have an uninterrupted view over an artificial lake towards Lockwood & Mawson’s gothic town hall.

Perhaps Priestley would have waved at the 34 similarly statuesque English kings and queens - and one king-killer - that adorn it, delighted that the city he loved might finally be emerging from the shadow of its bigger, brasher neighbour down the A647. Grassing over the city centre and filling it with sensory zones and learning bridges, he’d shout over to them. You wouldn’t get them in Leeds doing that.

Twenty-five years after the former National Museum of Film, Photography & Television first opened its doors, and a decade since my last visit, Priestley might be the same, but the building behind him seems to be slowly but surely evolving. And while it still seems to be doing its job of engaging, inspiring and educating as best it can, it’s perhaps beginning to appear a touch set in its ways and old before its time.

It may not be the only IMAX screen in the country any more, but the five-storey 3D presentation of Dinosaurs Alive still works for me. The only truly new information I get from the movie is that veloceraptors had feathers – and that Michael Douglas shouldn’t narrate films about ancient reptiles – but as a spectacle (white plastic ones that are somehow very futuristic and very 70s at the same time), it hits the spot.

The Live By The Lens, Die By The Lens photography exhibition focuses on the constantly evolving portrayal of celebrity and includes a large amount of genuinely iconic imagery – Hepburn by Beaton, Monroe by Arnold, Fonda on a podium in Hanoi – before finishing with the tellingly contemporary self-portraits of Winslet, Cruise and Zeta Jones.

Closer to home, Sunny Snaps documents beach and street photography, with hundreds of cheap and cheerful snaps of the British at their leisure, poking through comical ‘head through the hole’ vignettes, strolling along the prom, sitting on a motorcycle, messing about with a bloke in a monkey suit. Lionising the kind of no-nonsense commercial photography that is often ignored by historians, Sunny Snaps is as fine a piece of ‘people’s history’ as I’ve ever seen in a museum.

The museum’s animation gallery contains a riot of nostalgia – for those of a certain age – including Morph, the Wombles, the slightly scary PlaySchool puppets and animation cells from the likes of Tom & Jerry and Roobarb, as well as all manner of ingenious early DIY animation devices like Faraday’s Wheel and a vintage phenakistoscope. There’s even a tame animator.

Experience TV is an engaging interactive gallery, complete with cameras, monitors, lights and sound, which allows visitors to live out their newsreader fantasies.

Although the unholy combination of Jimmy Carr, UK Gold, YouTube and endless DVD re-issues means that the novelty of on-demand clips of vintage TV is no longer the big draw it once was, TV Heaven remains a compelling and absorbing archive of some 60 years of televisual gold, with more than 900 programmes available free of charge.

You can see Morecambe and Wise in rehearsal and James Mason returning to his hometown of Huddersfield. There’s the Face To Face interview with Martin Luther King, Alan Whicker’s chat with Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, and Brian Glover’s seminal It’s No Joke Living In Barnsley – as well as countless episodes of Up Pompeii, The Clangers, The Golden Shot and Chorlton & The Wheelies.

TV Heaven is also probably the only place in the world where you can watch Curry & Chips, the fantastically out-of-order 1969 factory sit-com with a blacked-up Spike Milligan playing a Pakistani immigrant.

In the space devoted to celebrating the 25th anniversary of the building, visitors can text in their thoughts to a big screen: “Zippy forever. Bring back Rainbow! PS Whatever happened to Geoffrey?” says one. “Fink ur museum is kewl,” says another, in a comment which must surely have warmed the hearts of the museum’s outreach staff.

Despite an extensive refurbishment in 1999, successive waves of schoolchildren have poked, prodded, kicked and battered some of the museum’s fixtures and fittings – and even some of its exhibits – into submission. Would it have hurt Kodak, for example, to spruce up its otherwise exemplary history of photography gallery in the museum’s jubilee year? Those wax mannequins were creepy enough in the first place. Teetering at odd angles, bits hanging off them, they are now the stuff of nightmares.

Looking slightly tatty around the edges is, I guess, the price you pay for interactivity. It shows that the place is being used, if nothing else. A bigger problem is that much of the content is unchanged from my last visit and, even worse, what new stuff there is seems a little behind the times.

Given the rapid pace of change in areas like film and photography, as well as the constraints placed on an institution that isn’t allowed to charge for admission, the museum clearly has a constant battle to maintain contemporary relevance. But despite widening its remit to include the web with the 2006 rebranding, the digital age doesn’t seem to have intruded much so far - though the museum does promise to develop a gallery about the internet at some point in the future.

Despite having a whole stack of listed buildings (and it’s a pity the derelict Odeon on the other side of the Alhambra can’t be one of them), Bradford seems to be changing for the better. It would be a great shame if what was once one of its most forward-thinking institutions got left behind in the rush.

What do you reckon, JB?

The National Media Museum, Bradford BD1 1NQ

Sunny Snaps: Street And Beach Photography In Britain continues until August 31, Live By The Lens, Die By The Lens until September 28.

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