Helmut Gernsheim and the museum of photography that never was
By Hebrew and Jewish Studies, on 9 September 2013
by Michael Berkowitz
University College London
In 1951, Helmut Gernsheim proposed and curated an exhibition as a part of the Festival of Britain on masterpieces of Victorian photography. His idea for the exhibition grew out of his work in the history of photography, in which he may be considered one of the primary figures in the establishment of the field. It also came about as a consequence of Gernsheim’s ardent and systematic collecting of photography which he pursued along with his scholarship. At the time photography was not highly valued, and his insistence that photography belonged in the realm of fine arts was treated as an eccentricity, if not derided in harsher terms. Gernhseim failed in his quest. No national museum or institute of photography, with a historical approach, was ever founded–although parts of other institutions, such as the National Media Museum in Bradford and Victoria & Albert Museum now have formidable collections. The bulk of Gernsheim’s trove is housed at the Ransom Center of the University of Texas in Austin, and in Mannheim, Germany. The lack of support for Gernsheim’s endeavor was due to attitudes toward photography, which were intertwined with Gernsheim’s marginal status as a refugee (of Jewish origins) from Nazi Germany. Indeed, he had taken up photography upon the strong advice of his brother, who advised him that one of the few avenues available to him, in Britain’s art scene, would be through the practice of photography. His original passion was art history. This presentation was part of a current book-in-progress, /Jews and Photography in Britain: Connections and Developments, 1850-2007/, based on research at the Warburg Institute archives, the British Library, the Getty Institute (Los Angeles), and the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas. At the Getty Research Institute Professor Berkowitz was a library research fellow, and at the Ransom Center he held a Schusterman-Dorot Postdoctoral Fellowship for work in the Gernsheim Collection.