Wednesday, 28 May 2014

MUSEUM INNOVATIONS: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN AND DIGITAL COLLECTIONS

BY: JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS

Is it just me or have museums been all over the news lately? The month of May has been incredibly active in the museum world as the Royal Ontario Museum collected the beached blue whale, The American Museum of Natural History partially launched their new digital collection, and now The Metropolitan Museum of Art has provided open access to images from their digital collections for personal download and non-commercial use. After obsessing over the wonderful Rijksstudio application—launched by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last year—I was delighted to discover that yet another museum has altered their digital image policy and has thus entered the realm of the public domain. These high-resolution images, that thread together multiple photographs, reveal intricate details of paintings through a zoom-in feature.

Young Woman Seated on a Sofa by Berthe Morisot
Young Woman Seated on a Sofa, Berthe Morisot, ca. 1879, MET Digital Collection

The MET’s initiative, called Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC) is essentially created for scholarly purposes as “students, educators, researchers, curators, academic publishers, non-commercial documentary filmmakers, and others involved in scholarly or cultural work” are encouraged to use this database (Quote from MET website). While their public domain and downloading policy is not presented as liberally as that of the Rijksmuseum (who encourage anyone to download, manipulate, and repurpose their art-read about it here), I believe this is a step in the right direction. 

Study for "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat
Study for "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte", Georges Seurat, 1884, MET Digital Collections

The reason why so many museums—typically art-based—are able to offer this digital feature to the public is because many artworks are no longer under copyright laws. That being said, not every piece in museum collections can be openly available as copyright status, ownership titles, and other restrictions are prohibitive. You will also notice that artworks within the public domain are primarily historical. So you may just have to wait another 50 years or so for your favourite contemporary artworks to hop on this wagon!

Two Japanese Women in Traditional Dress by Shinichi Suzuki
Two Japanese Women in Traditional Dress, by Shinichi Suzuki, 1870s, MET Digital Collection

While not everyone is thrilled about their favourite artworks being readily available for anyone to download, this digital trend will essentially ensure that high quality images of artworks are circulated on the internet. In doing so, these nearly flawless images will maintain the integrity of the original artwork and assert their association with the museum in which they are housed. Furthermore, each image is embedded with appropriate metadata thus optimizing search engine capabilities. This will ultimately rank them higher in Google searches than low quality renditions of artworks that currently crowd image searches.

The Unicorn is Found (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
The Unicorn is Found (from the Unicorn Tapestries), artist unknown, 1495–1505, MET Digital Collection

So what are the implications of digital museum collections? The most common argument amongst museum scholars is that digital replicas of artworks devalue the original and ultimately threaten its authenticity. Digitization more or less removes objects from their museum context and distances them from their physicality and the “essence” of the original. While this can definitely have some negative effects, digital replicas can offer a new lens in which objects can be examined. The public can now experience more intimate encounters with artworks as digital technologies tap into other human senses, such as light and touch. Imagine how engaging it would be to zoom into an artwork using your fingers on the surface of iPad or a tablet? As I have argued in my essays, digital replicas were not created as a replacement of original artworks, rather they act as supplementary devices that augment public experience—if users so choose. 

Bahram Gur Sees a Herd of Deer Mesmerized by Dilaram' s Music attributed to Miskin
Bahram Gur Sees a Herd of Deer Mesmerized by Dilaram' s Music, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, attributed to Miskin, 1597–98, MET Digital Collections

Do you believe digital technology should be prominently utilized in museum operations? What do you think are the positive and/or negative effects of the digitization of artworks. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

4 comments:

  1. Jaime, you are raising such an important topic which I think in the end is even less about technology itself as a producer of inauthentic images as it is about our relation with technology and our anxieties about technology interfering with art. I think your take on digitization is very interesting as you argue that digital images are not meant to compete with the original artwork (and how could they?) or to replace them (we still have physical museums where objects are displayed so material objects are very important to us as a culture). Co-habitation of different forms of media (content + interpretation) is a reality which not only museums have to accept but most other public institutions. It is important to be part of these conversations as they are shaping museum practices but also public taste.

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    1. Well said Irina! The notion that digital technology is not developed for museums to replace their collections doesn't seem to be discussed enough. It simply provides an alternative view of museums and objects. Traditional museum exhibitions, with dioramas and text panels, will always be in existence--in one form or another. Technology provides a different point of entry for the public, if they so choose. That being said, we use various forms of digital technologies in every aspect of our lives. If museums don't embrace them, they will certainly have a hard time keeping up! Thanks for your comment.

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  2. This article couldn't be better timed with my internship. One of the projects I'm working on is to obtain the copyright and licensing for images from other institutions to be used in exhibitions at the Canadian War Museum.
    One of the things that popped into my head while reading this was the potential loss of valuable revenue. Many institutions charge a fee (albeit fairly reasonable) for the right to use their image (even if it's out of copyright). Though I agree with you, Jaime, that the potential usefulness of such endeavous is marked, will many institutions be willing to lose this revenue? To be honest, I'm not sure if the money they make is even noticeable in the grand scheme of things - but I'm curious nonetheless. I mean, money's money, right?

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Meaghan! You make a very good point. I don't know enough about image reproduction and copyright laws, however I'm assuming that revenue has declined since images are so easily accessible online (whether they're open source or not). I guess my main idea is that images that are too old to fall under copyright laws should be available to the public. After all, public museums technically house their collections in public trust. I'm pretty sure this topic would make a very great thesis!

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