Why don't all museums and archives want to open up like the Rijksmuseum?

Posted on October 24, 2013
Bloemstudies van vier tulpen, Elias van Nijmegen, 1677 - 1755 (Rijksmuseum collection)The Rijksmuseum makes all its collections available to the general public, both inside and outside the Netherlands, for free download, use and reproduction. Users of their website can create their own collections, submit modified versions of famous paintings, or create posters and other spin-off products without incurring the wrath of the institution. In fact, such activity is encouraged. It's a wonderful place, a sign of the digital future.

We heard recently from Carolien Greyling about the dangers of digitized archives with paywalls and have had many discussions about digitization issues in Africa on the Archival Platform website in recent years. Today's post is a commentary on this post by Adrienne Berney, a Collections Care Trainer who works primarily with history museums in the USA, about opening access to museum collections. Berney wonders, essentially, why these museums don't want to act more like the Rijksmuseum.

It's a good question to ask. In her blog, Berney argues that a key role of institutions is to enable the widest possible public access and that doing so through digitization, open access and the reduction of restrictions on reproduction and use of collections has many benefits:

  • Public and non-profit private institutions hold collections in the public trust, and they cost the public money to access and maintain;
  • Many collections contain largely public domain materials;
  • Enabling broad access to collections justifies the trouble and expense of preserving artefacts
  • Poor quality images of artefacts in collections may harm the reputation of the museum and do a disservice to the original donor;
  • Enforcing limited-access policies (such as prohibiting photographs) imposes costs on museums;
  • Digitization can help keep collections safe by minimizing handling; and
  • Museums can partner with artists in product development to offset any loss of income from allowing people to freely photograph collections or make money out of them.

Berney makes the point, however, that many institutions were resistant to developing more open policy towards public access to and use of the collections. We found a similar pattern in our discussions about the photographing of public archives in Cape Town in 2009.

Why don't all institutions want to open up like the Rijksmuseum?

One obvious reason might be size, status and resources. The institutions that have promoted very broad, free and open access to their collections have usually been very large institutions, such as the Rijksmuseum, that are 'too big to fail', adequately staffed in the digital, marketing and outreach departments, able to take risks, and confident that their status will not be undermined by allowing visitors to 'own' the material, moving towards a new model of access.

The Rijksmuseum model works best if the source institution has the best and most authoritative versions of the collection so that people keep coming back in person and on the internet to their site. Many smaller institutions do not have the staff to develop the best quality images and web interfaces for accessing their materials, or to work with artists on product design. The status of any institution is tied partly to the strength of collections and this is particularly true of smaller institutions with shorter histories and more tenuous funding. Staff in such institutions worry about the implications of better digitized versions of their collections being held on aggregator sites in other countries, the link to their institution lost forever. This is one of the reasons why projects like Europeana have links back to host institutions from the search site.

Public institutions are usually very risk averse, especially if they are short of funds. Many institutions do not have good legal advice on copyright, and do not know the copyright status of their collections. They often end up exaggerating the risks and costs associated with copyright infringement at the expense of promoting access. The measures of success to which they are held were often developed in the pre-digital age and focus mainly on serving the twin aims of research and conservation.

The institutional mindset regarding broader public access is sometimes still rather narrowly conceived very narrowly as middle class researchers and school groups. Most public institutions have not been given incentives to broaden their publics. Engagement is often seen as a one-way street. In my report on the DISH 2011 conference, I commented on the problem of museums and archives still acting like 'secular churches, expecting visitors to file past the displays, taking in great knowledge, and giving thanks in hushed and grateful tones as they leave'.

African institutions also worry about students in better resourced institutions abroad having better access than local students if collections are digitized, although now that computer access in African universities has improved, local students are often constrained by travel costs more than by internet access in their use of archives. The benefits of digitization can be less relevant for wealthy students abroad if they have the funding to travel to the archives in any case.

What can be done?

Not all public institutions have the resources to act like the Rikjsmuseum at the moment, even if they wanted to. Still, it is important to look at what can be done to support them in their responsibility to ensure public access now, and to develop digital access into the future. As mobile access to the internet becomes more widespread among the general public in Africa, public access to archives could potentially improve, but only if these archives provide low bandwidth mobile interfaces. Any African digital access project would have to be carefully calibrated to this end.

In an age of subsidy cuts for the arts, building stronger audience engagement will ensure their survival and continued relevance, as many institutions are well aware. In his keynote to the GLAM-WIKI conference in April this year Michael Edson suggested that cultural institutions should set higher goals for themselves, looking not just at national but at global reach: he showed how audience development in key American museums had changed little since the 1930s, compared to the rapid and meteoric rise of resources like Wikipedia.

It is important to provide institutions with information about the benefits and risks of an open access model. Institutions may need specialist help in planning a digital strategy for stronger audience engagement, finding people with the right skills to implement it, legal advice on copyright and open access, and a funding strategy that uses their collection, if possible, to reduce dependence on the vagaries of the public purse. Here, organizations like the Open Knowledge Foundation or networks like GLAM WIKI can play an important role, but more resources are needed for a concerted effort in developing countries. All institutions need a risk management strategy on copyright. One good example is the Wellcome Collection's 'Copyright clearance and takedown' policy.

Any public institution can think big, but to a large extent it is constrained by the national or local authorities who draw up their mandates, provide resources, and set targets for evaluation of performance. For more institutions to act like the Rijksmuseum, more Departments of Culture need to wake up and smell the tulips.

Harriet Deacon is an Archival Platform correspondent based in the United Kingdom