marcus westbury

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Museums in the digital age

August 24th, 2009 by marcus

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WHAT is the role of a museum in a digital age? Should publicly funded collecting institutions be able or even obliged to share their collections online, and what do we need to do to allow them to do it effectively? It’s time to revisit the charters, role, regulation and resources of our museums. Time to liberate their collections from their dusty confines and share them in the spirit of enriching us all.

Events continue to remind me that such a rethink is long overdue. The most recent catalyst was what was cheekily described as an art heist. London’s National Portrait Gallery is taking legal action because 3000 images of works in its collection have been copied by a Wikipedia volunteer from its website. Lawyers for the gallery accuse Wikipedia of violating its copyright. They argue — quite understandably — that they have gone to the trouble and expense of photographing the works and should be entitled to determine where and how they’re used. Lawyers for Derrick Coetzee — the volunteer who did the copying — argue that the works are long out of copyright and in the public domain and that there is no copyright that should prevent them being shared.

There are many nuances to both arguments. It promises to be an interesting legal argument. But this legal battle is only a symptom of a larger unresolved question. Should museums be keeping, protecting and closing off their collections, or should they be actively sharing them? If they share them, then how, with whom and on what terms? The philosophical question is bound up in many practical ones of resources, rules and regulations and copyright.

Museums may seem stuffy. No doubt there are curators and managers who are protective. Some fear the lack of control and authority that comes with putting their work online. Some lack the skill, interest or inclination to share their collections and prefer to concentrate on doing their job as they have traditionally done it.

Yet in my experience, museums and galleries are also gathering points for enthusiasts. Curators and collectors are often zealots and evangelists — people with a high degree of passion for their chosen subject and a desire to share it with anyone who will listen. The internet is their natural domain as it allows them to connect quickly and cheaply with all those who share or might share their passions.

While there is the will, the challenge of uploading their collections are many. Digitisation can be expensive. Without a coherent strategy for converting the archives and collections for online use, such initiatives are often under-resourced and ad hoc. The rules aren’t clear. The desire to share knowledge buffets up against the imperative to monetise all assets. At its worst, digitisation is seen as a marketing imperative and a revenue source and not as part of the core mission of collecting and sharing knowledge.

Museums can also easily be crippled by copyright. Copyright provisions can make it ridiculously difficult to make contemporary objects, books, films, games or photographs available online. Museums have found themselves under legal threat for placing images of objects in their own collections on their own websites. They are full of orphan works such as old photographs, documents and ephemera where the copyright holder cannot be established. Too often the choice is to err on the side of caution rather than knowledge.

Within Australia, there are fierce and fruitful debates about these issues in our museums. The missing element is the rest of us. As taxpayers, we’re the ones who fund our museums and galleries and as citizens we are the ones for whose enlightenment and intellectual nourishment the works are collected. It’s time for leadership to take these issues away from poorly defined precedents and test cases.

It’s time to recognise that museums are in a unique position and empower them accordingly. We should give them the rights to collect and diffuse without fearing litigation. They exist to collect, preserve and make available our histories, so we need to resource them to do so. We should disentangle them from commercial copyright and recognise that their collections are not there to make a profit but to be shared. We need to tilt the copyright balance in favour of knowledge and away from fear. Museums should be permitted, if not mandated, to exhibit, transmit or broadcast their collections by whatever means possible. We should encourage not-for-profit collaborations with the likes of Wikipedia and other partners through negotiation, not litigation.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Susy Pow Aug 24, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Good and timely article, Marcus. I went to a talk by museum consultant, Elaine Heumann Gurian at the Powerhouse Museum recently and while she presented this idea of opening up the institution of museum to a wider audience and getting it out of the stuffy, protective & passive environment it’s in, it appeared that there was still a world of ground yet to cover. At the mere mention of young people acting as curators Elaine swiftly moved questions on to a much more conservative topic. Anyway, I did some research after the talk and found this:

    Might be of interest.

  • 2 Malini Aug 24, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I do hope the newly formed Gov 2.0 Taskforce addresses ‘open data’ in their recommendations/papers. did raise the issue at the Canberra roadshow stop

    We help Australian Museum with their recent refresh, and already have a list of additional updates. The site is great example of introducing 2.0 concepts in the museum/publicly funded world. But it was a long time in the planning/approval, as Russ’ awesome presentation outlines –

  • 3 Thomas Tunsch Aug 24, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks for this interesting article. The terms “control and authority” seem to reflect a key problem for museum scholars and other keepers of cultural heritage. For experts adapted to a hierarchical system of knowledge transfer the benefits of networking are not easy to accept. I learned that while preparing for the Museums and the Web conference two years ago ( and later as an administrator of the MuseumsWiki.

  • 4 kate Aug 25, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Making images available is only one aspect of accessibility to museum collections, and as you note, it’s expensive to photograph collections and legally messy to publish. Making other information, like wall texts, available online isn’t expensive, and the museum definitely own the copyright. Personally, I prefer reading while sitting down rather than standing up in a crowded gallery, so I’m more likely to read wall text if I can download it when I get home. Making it available electronically also makes it more accessible to people with disabilities.

  • […] What is the role of museums? […]

  • 6 Bolaji Aug 16, 2012 at 12:44 am

    beautiful piece