Shooting the Past – the photographic archive as subject

Shooting the Past – the photographic archive as subject


Timothy Spall as archivist, Oswald Bates

Recently I’ve been watching a BBC TV mini series about a doomed photography archive – Shooting the Past. The series was released in 1999 and I don’t know how I missed seeing it then but I was busy writing a dissertation on colonial photography (or maybe it didn’t even get played on TV here). The show presents a small group of odd ball staff, including Timothy Spall as Oswald Bates (an archivist with a photographic memory), while the chief curator is the articulate and sensible, Marilyn Truman (played by Lindsay Duncan). As the interface between the internal workings of the archive and the outside world, Marilyn is perceived as a bureaucrat by the archive staff and as a manager she has made a fatal mistake by delegating an aspect of archive business to Oswald.

Lindsay Duncan as chief curator, Marilyn Truman

Shooting the Past is interesting on many levels. For a start it is hard to imagine a time when the ups and downs of a photography archive was thought a profitable subject with mass appeal to grant it a mini series (well I think it is!). Also, the disturbing portrayal of photographic curators and archivists as obsessive social misfits in worlds of their own within the dark corridors of the archive feels like a cheap shot at my profession and doesn’t match my own experience of working in this area. However what struck me most about it was the portrayal of our relationship to viewing images in the form of photographic prints. The value of spending time looking at photographs is emphasised by the production as the camera lingers on different prints allowing us to notice details and appreciate what they show – a fabulous endorsement for slowing down and looking with care. Marilyn, the chief curator, spends a good deal of time trying to convince the head of the American business school of the relevance and meaning of photography and its vital connection to history, culture and individual lives. The brutal point about the worth of the archive to outsiders is made through the financial rationale of maintaining the building that houses the collection. The building is a crumbling ancestral house outside of London which the archive has no money to restore but the business school does and so it’s intentions take over – in this era worth is equated with paying your way.

Shooting the Past is a dramatic and moving portrayal of the importance and value of a photographic collection and how it can be brought down and undermined by simple business economics.

So will Marilyn save the archive or will big business send it all to the tip? I can’t wait to see how it will end.


For the chance to linger over vintage photographic prints visit Nga Toi / Arts Te Papa on level 5 of the museum. Current sections of the galleries exhibiting photography are ‘Framing the View’ and ‘Anonymous Bodies’.


Lissa Mitchell – Curator Historical Documentary Photography



  1. Thanks great article.

    Timothy was recently on Graham Norton and his recent role as an artist is getting critical acclaim.


  2. Well Hello there Lissa,

    I only recently became aware of Te Papa, through Domain Review, whose Newsletter I receive by email and what a delight Te Papa is.

    I saw this series ages ago and found it really really interesting. I can’t remember what happened in the end but it was a good piece of drama and enlightening like you say at the same time. I have always wanted to visit New Zealand but don’t think it will ever happen now so something like Te Papa is as close as I will get. It’s been so interesting finding out about the native New Zealanders, the Maori people and how they have progressed over the years.

    I am wondering what was the name of New Zealand before the ‘white man’ arrived ?

    1. Author

      Hello Aine – thanks for getting in touch and its good to hear you are enjoying Te Papa from afar. A good place to go for information about NZ is the Te Ara website . all the best, Lissa

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