Sharon Heal

Remembrance of things past

Sharon Heal, 23.04.2014
We shouldn't have a rose-tinted view of the past
The definition of nostalgia is the wistful desire to return to a time in the past – a bittersweet longing for things or people. This feeling must play some part in creating the connections between things and people that happens in museums.

Earlier this week I had a big dose of nostalgia when I travelled to Bradford, a city that I lived in for a few years in the late 1980s. It holds a warm place in my memory of late night curries, dodgy clubs and early morning demonstrations – it was the 80s after all.

Despite the fact that I lived in the Manningham area of the city, just down the road from Cartwright Hall, I can't remember ever visiting the gallery. And I think I only went to what was then the National Museum of Film Photography and Television once, to see a film rather than an exhibition.

This latest trip was to meet with the Museums Association's online publications editor Rebecca Atkinson who has recently relocated to West Yorkshire and now heads up our “northern office”.

Feeling nostalgic for a particular time in my life and in the life of the city it was fitting to pay a visit to Only in England, an exhibition of photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the renamed National Media Museum.

Ray-Jones' images document ordinary people in the 60s and 70s. They appear to be as skillfully composed as a 19th-century oil painting but they are in essence artful snapshots that capture what now looks like a different world.

The seaside photographs of commonplace towns like Margate, Ramsgate, Llandudno, are particularly resonant. A beach holiday is a quintessentially British pursuit, a universal experience that can easily be identified with. The images are both evocative and intriguing.

The photographer Martin Parr was invited to look through Ray-Jones' contact sheets held in the archive of the museum. His selection of images is shown alongside Parr's own work, revealing the connections between the two.

Parr's series of photographs taken in and around the West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge also documents a distant way of life. The Non Conformists records the decline of the Methodist chapels and congregations in the area.

Shows like this can create connections, between two photographers, between moments in time and between generations, but we shouldn't have a rose-tinted view of the past. As Parr puts it: “We must not become hostages to nostalgia.”

The other exhibition at the museum, Open for Business, was a subtle reminder of this. The concept doesn’t sound promising; nine international photographers commissioned to document contemporary manufacturing.

But some of the images are stunning and it challenges the idea that Britain only made things in the past.

When I visited the media museum it was heaving with local people and families who seemed to connect with the distant yet familiar images of Parr and Ray-Jones.

I was reminded that it was only a year ago that there was talk of this museum closing. What a tragedy that would have been.