Foundations of an open playground
My daughter is a 3rd grader in the Danish public school. She and her classmates are surrounded by digital technologies. They learn about the world and how it works on tablets, smartboards, and through interactive software. Being a curator in a museum with an amazing collection of artworks and knowledge, I dream of all the things she and her friends could be doing, learning and making with our collections. I am an avid advocate of opening up our cultural heritage to free and universal use across the World Wide Web. I want digitised museum collections to be a gigantic playground for school kids to romp about in.
Reading the preceding CODE | WORDS essays has reaffirmed my conviction that museums must open up their collections and minds to the world. A quick glance at some of the fabulously inspiring essays in the series delivers compelling arguments why we should embrace openness as a strategy for our data, and as a state of mind. Michael Edson and Nick Poole both contribute to defining a much bigger scope for what museums can achieve.
“Museums, libraries, and archives (…) can play a huge role in the story of how Earth’s 7 billion citizens will lead their lives, make and participate in their culture, learn, share, invent, create, cry, laugh, and do in the future.” Read more
Museums can “give people places, experiences and tools which help them engage creatively and positively with chaos and change.” Read more
Mike Murawski adds how digital has become omnipresent — not just as technology but as a way of thinking and living life in the 21st century — and therefore an inevitable baseline in museum practice today.
“…we can no longer unplug the effect of digital technologies and Internet culture on the ways we think about and re-imagine museums today (…) For museums in the 21st century, becoming aware of these changes requires a shift in thinking at all levels — a shift that embraces a wider ‘digital mindset’.” Read more
I wholeheartedly agree. For that reason, I feel privileged to be part of a team that is working intently to turn our museum, Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK for short, also referred to as the National Gallery of Denmark), into what Nick Poole calls an ‘unbounded’ institution. As I am writing this essay, we are putting the finishing touches on our new open image policy, and preparing to establish the technical framework for public access to free download and uninhibited reuse of our Public Domain images. This will enrich the Web with ten thousands of quality images of artworks, collected and cared for by the Danish state on behalf of the population, for everyone to learn from, share, play with, and build upon.
I can’t tell you how excited this makes me feel. Inspired by Michael Edson’s advice to ‘Think Big, Start Small, Move fast’, we have managed to advance from releasing just 160 high resolution images into the Public Domain — to test the waters — to articulating a new, open policy for our Public Domain images that is in the process of being implemented. After years of internal discussions, research, pilot projects, and scrutiny of results, we have come to a mutual understanding that our digitised collections should be where they belong; in the hands of the public. Today, we have a director who promotes ‘promiscuous sharing’ as a virtue, and speaks with conviction of being an ‘unbounded’ museum.
”With our digitised collection we can help educate and enlighten people, supporting them in their endeavours to become reflecting, creative individuals. But in order for this to happen our cultural heritage must belong to everyone, and each of us must be free to use it in exactly the ways we need and dream of (…) Our role is still more to facilitate public use of cultural heritage for learning, creativity, and innovation. Today, the museum as a place of enlightenment is based on interaction. We are all part of this web. We enlighten each other.” Mikkel Bogh, director of SMK
This open attitude to our collections and societal role has not come about in a snap. As described in detail in “This belongs to you” — my own contribution to the anthology Sharing is Caring. Openness and sharing in the cultural heritage sector — it has taken several years to make the decision to change our image policy, and even after passing this milestone we still have a long way to go.
We have taken our firsts steps into opening up our digitised collections, but at the moment our images come in variable resolutions and qualities. The good thing, however, is that they are clearly marked and tagged as Public Domain. It’s a work in progress to digitise and liberate in the vicinity of 200,000 artworks, and we’re only at the initial exercises. But we decided, in a digital frame of mind, that we’d rather make ongoing releases of what we have in a less than perfect way than wait until everything is complete and flawless (knowing it will never be). As noted in a recent article on the awesome achievements of the Cooper Hewitt in terms of creating a flexible, multimodal machinery out of their digitised collections, the “team has accomplished so much largely by accepting imperfection.”
However, a point that is made repeatedly in the CODE | WORDS essays is that we are not just in need of opening up our assets in order to have bigger societal impact. It is also, and urgently, a question of survival in a changing cultural environment. As Ed Rodley bluntly puts it,
“If we’ve learned anything about species evolution, it is that those species that are most inventive at the reproduction game are also most often the clear winners at natural selection. The same holds true for museums. Survival lies in the widest, most promiscuous spread of the cultural seeds we steward and create.” Read more
Rob Stein tackles this issue from another angle, that of impact assessment. Today, where cultural institutions are competing on a global scale not just for the attention of audiences, but for continued government and private funding, it is growing more and more crucial that we are able to tell the world why our work matters, and how it makes a positive difference in real people’s lives. As he points out, when governments and philanthropists are looking at how to invest their money, the cultural sector is up against huge issues like fighting poverty, curing cancer, or equalising global inequality. There is a growing tendency among funders to prioritize investing in causes,
“…that can deliver the biggest tangible benefits, believing that a disciplined method of investing in these causes will result in the greatest human impact for good. (…) The problem lies with the cultural sector’s inability to mount a compelling case of evidence to convince these “effective altruists” that tangible and meaningful benefit does indeed result from investing in the arts and culture.” Read more
An unmissable opportunity
I have always imagined that the first and foremost societal benefit of releasing my museum’s images into the Public Domain would be the impact this would have on the quality, educational opportunities, and depth of engagement with art in public schools. Imagine my daughter and her friends having big, beautiful, faithful reproductions of artworks from their national gallery right at hand; images that they were free to play with, tag, cut up, remix, and put up anywhere they like — as opposed to the low quality, degraded reproductions of the gallery’s artworks that they can currently find on the Internet. For graphic examples of how widespread this problem is, visit Sarah Stierch’s Yellow Milkmaid Syndrome project.
Every kid in Denmark is required to go to school for at least 9 years, and all of these kids will go through education in the arts, in history, and languages where they will encounter artworks and knowledge that stem from museums. With open collections, museums have a unique opportunity to be the providers of the raw materials for these educational journeys — materials that due to their high quality will be truly engaging and enjoyable for the kids to work with and learn about. Putting these images into the hands of school kids is a strategy for deeper learning. As Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum collections, has said, “the action of actually working with an image, clipping it out and paying attention to the very small details makes you remember it.”
And this is just the beginning. Being the sources of this content, museums also have the opportunity to enter the kids’ minds as places or platforms that offer cool stuff to explore and play with, not just in class, but also outside school, because it is available promiscuously everywhere on the Web. If we could succeed in turning our digitised collections into a familiar toolset that resides in the kids’ minds as something that’s always at hand, easy to use, interesting and fun, research indicates that there’s a good chance that those kids will grow up to appreciate, enjoy, use, and contribute to culture and the arts, also as adults. A mindset they are likely to pass on to their own children. To me, that would be a compelling case of evidence of the tangible and meaningful benefit resulting from opening up our digitised collections to the public. We can help create this virtuous circle.
I have recently started investigating what we as a museum can do to make Danish public schools use and benefit from all of the open images that are now out there, freely and openly available. I have been talking to colleagues in our Education department, and people who work with media didactics in the Danish public school system, to try and understand the basics of getting this right.
A solid foundation
Before I get specific about the potentials and challenges of utilizing open images for didactic purposes that I am learning about, let me provide a bit of background about the existing relations between museum education and public schools in the capital region of Denmark, where SMK is situated. Since the early 1970’s, a network called Skoletjenesten (the ‘School Service’) has been working to facilitate educational programmes between schools and museums. Today, the School Service encompasses more than 20 museums in Copenhagen and the Zealand region, including SMK, which offer audience-specific education programmes for school classes that bridge classroom work and museum visit. The aim is to meet school teachers and students where they are, providing alternative spaces for learning where engagement with authentic artworks and artefacts is central. Importantly, the goal is also to offer school children and teachers educational frameworks and inspiration for new ways of learning that they aren’t familiar with, or didn’t know they needed. More than 300,000 school children take part in School Service programmes every year.
In other words, there are solid traditions for didactic partnerships between public schools and museums which open images can add new exciting dimensions. Being the National Gallery of Denmark, SMK has a special public service obligation to reach all school kids in the country. Freely available and reusable digital images of the artworks in our collections offer a fantastic opportunity to attain that goal.
So far, so good. There are longstanding relations between public schools and public museums in Denmark, and their solidity is due to the fact that, fundamentally, our institutions build on similar principles; that everyone in society shall have equal access and opportunity to learn, develop and thrive as individuals and citizens.
Bildung meets Building
The Germans have a fine word, Bildung, which is impossible to translate entirely into English but which packs into a single word the joint meaning of education, formation, and culture. Bildung has been at the core of democratic society since its foundations were laid in the Age of Enlightenment, and as Ed Rodley expressed in his CODE | WORDS essay, “promiscuous sharing is a way of finally delivering on the ambitions of those Enlightenment thinkers who dreamed of universal knowledge diffusion.” With universal access to cultural heritage as raw materials for new creativity and innovation, Bildung becomes closely connected to Building. Creating an understanding of the world and your own place in it becomes a product of active processing, adapting, rebuilding and repurposing. The word Bildung is particularly apt in this context, since etymologically it is derived from the verb bilden (to form or create) which again originates from the noun Bild (image). Images, also linguistically, are building blocks for learning. We are formed by exploring and creating images.
Though I have just scratched the surface of the pedagogical potentials of open images, my initial research into the field has already revealed some immediate challenges that we need to tackle if we want to turn our open collections into truly useful assets for the students and teachers in our public schools.
New competencies, new frameworks
When my daughter returned to school after the summer holiday last year, it was to a transformed reality. The Danish public school system had been through an extensive reform, and the new version of ‘public school’ was kicked off in August 2014. At the core of the school reform is the notion that every kid should be treated as an individual learner. This consolidates a fundamental change in the teacher’s role that has been emerging for a number of years; from a classic conveyor of knowledge to a facilitator of learning whose foremost job it is to uncover, in collaboration with the kids, which learning styles bring out the best in each of them. This is also expressed as a shift from teaching goals to learning goals, with a strong focus on aiding students translate what they learn into practical skills. The classic learning styles of reading, writing and verbalizing ideas is complemented by more active learning styles like visual learning, active listening, hands-on approaches, engaging all of the senses, co-creation, and building as a cognitive practice. Simultaneously, IT is emphasized as a cross-disciplinary field of competence.
The idea underpinning open collections is to turn artworks from passively consumed images into building blocks in the hands of users. In my ears, the school reform sounds like it provides a perfect arena for open images to unleash their educational and creativity-fostering potentials.
However, I am learning that opening up our collections is just the beginning of a much bigger venture. Turning the vision of democratic access to our shared cultural heritage into a positive impact we can measure, and demonstrating that we have improved the learning opportunities for every school kid in Denmark, is not achieved merely by releasing quality images into the Public Domain. Talking to colleagues from Children and Youth programmes at SMK — Nana Bernhardt, Julie Maria Johnsen and Jens Christensen — and are experienced in working closely together with public school teachers to design educational resources and workshops based in our collections and knowledge, has deepened my understanding of what it will take to unleash the potentials of open collections in the hands of school children.
Don’t get me wrong; openness is a great starting point. Public schools are always hungry for quality educational resources from trusted sources, and they often work with minimal budgets. So if there are freely available, reliable resources out there, then all the better. But there are hurdles to overcome before open museum images become truly useful to the public school, and some of them are terrifyingly banal.
Firstly, I am learning that museums need to basically raise awareness that our Public Domain images are out there and may be freely used. While the surge of digitised heritage collections released into the Public Domain is making headlines in the cultural sector, the good news hasn’t really caught on outside of our own circles. I often hear myself explaining at length what I do and why it’s so important, and receive astonished feedback from the patient people who hear me out: “Can I really go and grab high res images off your website? And just use them for what ever I want? For free?” My colleagues who work with school programmes confirm that this lack of knowledge is also common among teachers and students alike. The news that many museums and cultural heritage institutions are now sharing quality images freely on the Internet simply hasn’t reached the classrooms and teachers’ lounges yet.
Bigger is better. Or is it?
Secondly, I am beginning to understand that museums need to cater in a much more targeted way for the specific conditions and needs of teachers and students when working didactically with digital images. If Bildung is all about building, we need to build strong bridges between our digitised collections and the school classes where we hope to see them put into widespread use. One of the hurdles standing in the way of usage — one which has come as a surprise to me — is that big image files are not necessarily or always the best thing to offer. The digital tools that are available in public school media programmes often have set limits for the size of image files they can handle. The tools offered in SchoolTube for things like film editing, annotation of images, creating timelines, animations, and mashups, work best with image files no larger than 1600 pixels wide. There is a great focus on the importance of releasing big image files, the bigger the better, to support creative and innovative reuse. But focus is lacking on releasing content that is fit for purpose.
In a recent blogpost, Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Information Studies, University College London, asks a really good question: Why are we not witnessing a wave of popular reuse of the masses of digitised cultural heritage that’s being released on the Internet?
“We live at a time when most galleries, libraries, archives and museums are digitising collections and putting them up online to increase access, with some (…) releasing content with open licensing actively encouraging reuse. We also live at a time where it has become increasingly easy to take digital content, repurpose it, mash it up, produce new material, and make physical items (…) What relationship does digitisation of cultural and heritage content have to the maker movement? Where are all the people looking at online image collections like Europeana or the book images from the Internet Archive and going… fantastic! Cousin Henry would love a teatowel of that: I’ll make some xmas presents based on that lot!” Read more
Having read this post, I realize that one reason is because these images are not fit for purpose. There are millions of cultural heritage images made available online for free, but often they are released with such limited understanding of the needs of their target users that they miss the target. In Melissa’s case, she actually requires big PhotoShop-friendly image files, as raw as possible, that are fit for clipping and remixing. Danish school kids and teachers require something quite different; images that are formatted to fit the digital tools they have at their disposal. If they can’t upload our images to their platforms, or have to deal with reformatting them before they can get to work, chances are they will give up and go find suitable images elsewhere. Images that will not be authenticated by the museum that houses the original artefact, or link back to the source where in depth information about the object can be found. We cannot afford that this happens. So, after having spread the word that we offer open images, we need to pack them in formats that suit the toolbox realities of the public school. Bottom line is; if we want our open collections to have a real positive impact in people’s lives, we need to work much harder on making it easy for any user to get images that fit their purpose.
Frameworks for reuse
Thirdly, my colleagues in School Service tell me that it is absolutely vital to establish starting points and frameworks for school kids and teachers to work with open images in meaningful ways. Years of experience with running School Service programmes have ascertained that successful learning happens when both sides are equally engaged; when school teachers and museum educators form real teams that develop learning programmes in close collaboration, and share ownership of the resulting didactic designs. This is all the more topical when we are talking about introducing new media practices that require new skills.
As my colleagues recount, the level of digital literacy in Danish public schools fluctuates considerably. This is backed up by Peter Leth, pedagogical consultant at SchoolTube and a former public school teacher himself. While ‘digital didactics’ is a political buzzword in Denmark, it is still far from implemented into everyday practices in schools nationwide. According to Peter Leth, only approximately 25 % of Danish school kids are exposed to fully deployed digital learning methods today. In his experience, there is a degree of hesitance or even resistance among Danish teachers to embrace the digitisation of teaching and learning practices. One reason is that the digitisation is politically conditioned, and therefore easily perceived as an ideal that is out of sync with the everyday reality in the classrooms. It’s all well and good to say that the public school must be digital, and to invest in the hardware, but if it isn’t followed up with additional means, time, and resources for supplementary training, it’s not likely that it will result in a new, sustainable practice.
Public school teachers belong to one of the professional groups in the Danish workforce that are most subject to stress-related illnesses. As one public institution to another, museums can support their efforts to enhance the digital literacy of the next generation of citizens in our society. We can help bring down the risk of a digital divide growing between those students who are trained in analytical and critical use of digital media and those who are not. A risk that could significantly influence and diversify their choices of education and chances on the job market when they leave school.
It is not hard to understand why many school teachers are struggling to get up to speed with the state of digital didactics — a field that is constantly developing and jumping ahead at fast pace. Though in principle the new school reform aims to improve and update the didactical opportunities for every school kid in Denmark, in practice — and quite predictably, as any reform would — it has also entailed uncertainty and added pressure among teachers. Having to adapt to changes of long ingrained practices doesn’t leave much energy for experimenting and trying out new things. Not an optimal scenario for the bright new potentials of open images to unfold in. Taking this into account, museums can take on an active role, not only in offering open images as a free resource to public schools.
Another important way of making open images fit for purpose is to put them at the core of didactic designs that align with the curricula outlined by the Ministry of Education. By suggesting meaningful frameworks for putting them into use in accordance with the curricula that teachers and students are required to follow, the open images become a useful tool that supports a busy workday instead of being yet another add-on, one more item in the pile of stuff the much-burdened teachers should look into. A sustainable practice would be for museums to co-develop didactic designs built around open images with the teachers who are going to use them in their teaching. We should offer and package open images, so they are not just ‘nice to use’, but ‘need to use’.
Apart from these challenges, that have to do with packaging and tailoring open images for didactic purposes, there is also a fundamental need to educate both teachers and students about proper conduct and attribution when using content found online. Peter Leth has been working for years to raise the level of digital awareness in public schools, attracting attention to the new conditions of teaching in the age of the Internet. In his experience, school kids as well as teachers are used to surfing the Web for images and copying or downloading the first thing handy, with little or no regard to copyright. This concerns him, because it turns the promises of free and global information search as a learning tool into a potential vice.
“The school wants to see and support creative, imaginative youngsters who evolve and learn how to interact with the world. But the school becomes conflicted with itself and its surroundings if it embroils itself and its students in criminal activities. And in fact it will do so every time it hosts an activity where you need to work with information and knowledge that is protected by copyright law.” Read more
Teaching students and teachers about proper use and reuse of online content is not a task for museum. But our open images can help alleviate the problem even so. As we flood the Internet with authenticated, high quality, openly licensed images, they will flush out existing bad copies of the same artworks and objects. By providing a safe alternative to randomly surfing the Web for images, museums will reap the benefits of becoming the key online reference point for objects in their collections.
But offering images that are safely in the Public Domain is one thing. Another and more tricky problem is dealing with the so-called ‘black hole of the 20th century’. This term designates all of the in-copyright content that is not digitised, not made available online by their rightsholders, or belong to the category of orphan works. In an educational environment where we want kids to teach kids to respect copyright, and at the same time inspire them to take active part in reusing and creating culture, it’s not enough to make just the old stuff available. We need to address how we as cultural sector can help school kids feel connected to modern and contemporary art as well, and this connection becomes stronger when they can play with it.
The cultural commons is founded on the principle of diversity and inclusiveness (UNESCO, 2005). In a recent paper by Hans van der Linden, Eva van Passel and Leen Driesen, it is proposed to widen the scope of this excellent principle to encompass diversity and inclusiveness of the resources held in a cultural commons. As they write, a cultural commons
“…should not be limited to freely accessible content in the public domain, but should also enable meaningful integrations of material where intellectual property rights still play a role and take into account opportunities for novel artistic creations.” Read more
With their paper, they propose to start building the foundations of a layered commons, where different content types have different levels of openness, dependent on their rights status — acknowledging that this is going to take a while to realize. On a more immediate level, Melissa Terras suggests that cultural heritage institutions help leverage the demand for reusable in-copyright materials by curating pre-cleared packages of modern and contemporary images so they are ready to use under clearly communicated terms.
If we want kids who appreciate and are curious about culture in all its diversity, we need to bring the full spectrum of cultural heritage into play, and teach them how to act correctly and respectfully while feeling free and uninhibited about using culture. Hopefully, being introduced to reusable digital content from school age in a manner that underlines the value of open licensing and proper attribution, kids will be inspired to be both creative, and to share their own creative output under the same liberal terms as the raw materials they have the benefit of having access to. A beautiful example of a young creative who gets it is the artist Filip Vest (b. 1995), who explores the artistic potentials of remixing digitised masterpieces from art collections, and shares his own works under the Creative Commons license CCBY-SA to encourage others to keep building.
In a broader perspective, it is vital to raise the general level of awareness of the complexity of seeking and using information on the Internet. Critical search and evaluation of online content and information is growing more and more important as a skill. OECD defines a set of core competencies that are needed in order to do well in the networked society of the 21st century. Apart from basic IT skills, these encompass abilities such as critical information search, data wrangling and management, multimodal interpretation, adaptation to changing conditions, self management, creativity and innovation.
Often, there is a tendency to think that these are skills that kids automatically have today, brought up on Internet-connected devices as they are. However, new research implies that the generation that has been dubbed ‘digital natives’ may be born into a world that’s innately and ubiquitously digital, but that does not necessarily mean they are born with the ability to navigate critically and proficiently in the digital realm. At least in Denmark, studies show that many school kids lack basic skills at evaluating the validity and credibility of the information and sources they find online.
Once again, there is an obvious opportunity here for museums to contribute positively to the digital education of school kids. If there is something museum professionals are aces at, it is critical search and evaluation of source material. Our ability to offer not only truthful renderings of artworks in our collections, but also truthful contexts for them, and an authentic interest in discussing established knowledge and exploring new perspectives, makes museums great partners in digital didactics.
The need to develop digital literacy and skills of course goes both ways. Museum educators as well as school teachers and students require training in understanding and utilizing digital media optimally for learning purposes. My point is that museums have a common cause with public schools, and the benefits we can gain from investing in this field are evident. For digital didactics to prosper, we need safe and trusted environments where kids can learn how to navigate the Internet and sort through the raw materials flowing around there. We can help create those, in close collaboration with school teachers.
A bigger vision
I have always thought of my daughter as a Maker. With museums opening up their collections, I feel that my profession can play an important part in providing building blocks for her creativity and her education to become a happy and reflective citizen. I realize that the idea of digitised collections as a playground may sound like a naïve vision in the face of the dire global crisis outlined in some of the preceeding CODE | WORDS essays. Also, the kinds of challenges I have tried to identify here seem arguably petty in comparison with those described in the essays of for instance Bridget Mckenzie and Rob Stein. But I think we stand on common ground; that museums must get a new perspective on what kind of impact we can make. It is not about us. It is about the difference we can make in people’s lives. How our practice can underpin the development of a healthier, more balanced society. To quote Bridget Mckenzie,
“…the key is not in the question ‘how can museums survive?’, but in ‘how can museums do work that matters?’” Read more
To achieve that, we need to start somewhere. And I think a good place to start is by supporting the formation of independent, creative, critically reflective children who are braced for the challenge of building a better world. That’s the task we have passed onto them. My aim here has been to start exploring the mechanics of open museum content as educational resource; how we can turn our digitised collections into a brick in the building. I am eager to learn from you — writers and readers of CODE | WORDS — what the conditions for learning with open content are in your communities, and how you think we can demonstrate the societal impact of opening up digitised culture.
Thanks to the people who have informed my research
· Nana Bernhardt, head of Children and Youth programmes, SMK
· Julie Maria Johnsen, educator in Children and Youth programmes, SMK
· Jens Christensen, intern in Children and Youth programmes, SMK
· Peter Leth, pedagogical consultant, Lær-IT and SkoleTube
Olga Dysthe, Nana Bernhardt & Line Esbjørn, Dialogue-based teaching. The art museum as a learning space. Skoletjenesten, Copenhagen 2012
Karin Tweddell Levinsen, “It i undervisningen“, Dansk Magisterforening, 08 May 2012
Merete Sanderhoff, “This belongs to you”, Sharing is Caring. Openness and Sharing in the Cultural Heritage Sector, SMK 2014
Peter Leth, “Open licensens, open learning”, Sharing is Caring. Openness and Sharing in the Cultural Heritage Sector, SMK 2014
Hans van der Linden, Eva Van Passel & Leen Driesen, “Towards a Cultural Commons Approach as a Framework for Cultural Policy and Practice in a Network Society”, Proceedings of the 2nd Thematic Conference on Knowledge Commons, New York, 5–6 September 2014
Cecilie Cronwald, ”Myten om de digitale indfødte”, Weekend Avisen, 21 November 2014
Robinson Meyer, “The Museum of the Future Is Here”, The Atlantic, 21 January 2015