Open licensing and frank interpretation: lessons from the Dutch and Belgians

Our #digiRDG team wanted to learn about interesting digital museum things, so we went to Amsterdam with EU ERASMUS+ funding.

(you know, while we still have it)

The clincher for choosing Amsterdam instead of anywhere else in Europe was the RijksStudio. It’s possibly the only museum catalogue that people have actually heard of.

It is also a beacon of open access and open licensing. Pick a picture, they say, and do what you want with it:

We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have, are, in a way, everyone’s property… With the internet, it’s so difficult to control your copyright or use of images that we decided we’d rather people use a very good high-resolution image from the Rijksmueum rather than using a very bad reproduction… If they want to have a Vermeer on their toilet paper, I’d rather have a very high-quality image of Vermeer on toilet paper than a very bad reproduction.
Taco Dibbits, Director of Collections at the Rijksmuseum
The Rijkstudio runs a competition every year for the most innovative use of their collections.

To listen to the Internet Manager at the Rijksmuseum, Peter Gorgels, explain it felt like being in a Ted talk (and there is a Ted talk). He told us how, while closed for their 10-year redevelopment, they took the opportunity to take beautiful, high-definition photographs of their collection.

Many of the visitors didn’t realise they could download the images for free…

But there’s no point doing a massive digitisation project if nobody gets to use the products, so they released them all under a CC0 Licence. This means anyone can copy, distribute, modify and use the RijksStudio images and data without permission from the RijksMuseum. While full of admiration, we also had to wonder whether smaller museums could afford such a giveaway, let alone the initial digitisation.

Nevertheless, if the Netherlands were to have a byline, it would be

we like open licensing.

It reared its head again when meeting Steph Scholten, Director of the University of Amsterdam Special Collections, and Chief Curator Marike van Roon. The latter happens to sit on the board of Wikimedia, and they’ve run various upload- and edit-a-thons that inject their expertise into Wikipedia and address its biases. This openness extends to the museum itself, with an open conservation studio where you can talk to volunteers about their current projects (shown above).

The Koninklijke Bibliotheek has the obligatory Treasures gallery…

And meeting with Adrian Murphy at Europeana at the Royal Library showed us how deep the love of open licensing went. Not all of what Europeana holds is open-licensed, but how they use their collections through online exhibitions and social media campaigns will be helpful to draw on for our current project.

The aim of Europeana is laudable, if daunting. I almost wish they had more teeth — that the EU had given them the authority to demand digitised collections from all museums and galleries, so that we might finally have a central database.

As well as our meetings we also wanted to skim some of the museums of Belgium and the Netherlands. What we ended up doing was diving deep into the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp, Belgium.

The architecture is billowing glass, dappled oranges and metal hands. It is an Instagram dream, exemplifying how architecture can turn a museum visit from a nice day out into an actual experience. None of the building’s architectural oddities seem to have been made at a sacrifice to the museum’s functions, though. Instead, the building has ample space for seven galleries on seven floors, mostly for permanent displays but also a temporary exhibition and an open store (both closed during our visit, resulting in a discounted ticket).

The MAS has had considerable thought put into it without ever straying up the ivory tower. It had obviously invested a ton of money into its AV, set design and interactives, which always added seamlessly to the displays without being gimmicky. The interpretation was witty, informative and the right length — the only downside was having to scan QR codes for English labels in some galleries, but this is a very selfish gripe.

Where the MAS could have done something simple — such as tracking the history of Antwerp — it went for something more complicated by exploring the city’s relationship with food as a port city in World Port | Trade and shipping.

Contemporary art furthered the message of every gallery.

The gallery had particular resonance for us as we recently redeveloped the Museum of English Rural Life. We had also tried to tackle the theme of food and food security, but we didn’t do it with nearly the same finesse as MAS (though to give ourselves credit we have a much wider remit and fewer resources). The gallery felt very connected to Antwerp, and constantly has one eye on the past and one on the future, including a whole section dedicated to future technologies to address climate change and food security (algae for lunch, anyone?).

The Art from Pre-Columbian America gallery was also stunning. I’m no expert, but I’ve never seen pre-conquest artefacts of such quality and range. Despite working in museums myself, it’s actually quit rare that I feel a connection with an object, and connect beyond its form to its maker and what their life may have been. I felt that connection with several objects in the gallery, helped through subtle interpretation and a hushed, almost church-like atmosphere built through lighting, set design, sound and AV. The couple with a baby was my particular favourite, shown above.

Another city and museum which surprised us was Utrecht. The description of it as a more digestible, prettier Amsterdam was spot on. The architecture, the markets, the people and the atmosphere were everything you could hope for as a visitor.

You weren’t allowed to sit on this, but there was a reconstruction upstairs which you could plonk yourself down in.

I almost gave the Centraal Museum a miss. I expected a predictable regional museum along the lines of a classic British Victorian regional museum, but what I found was:

Dick Bruna’s studio was a draw for many Japanese tourists.

We rounded off our trip to the Rijksmuseum, a place I’d visited already but in which I found plenty more to see. It’s a museum which relies on the importance and beauty of its objects to captivate; interpretation is light, and rarely more than a label. Their large, portable sheets which explore details of particular paintings were very welcome (pictured below).

Interestingly, we could see no mention of the Rijkstudio anywhere in the museum — nothing to tell the visitors that they could go home and print off the Night Watch from their own printer for free. Perhaps this is to keep the shop a going concern.

We took a lot away with us from the Netherlands and Belgium. I was already an open licence advocate, but seeing its application has given me more ammunition to explore it in my own institutions. The assured, unpatronising and straightforward interpretation of all the museums I visited also struck a chord. The job now is inject a little bit of Dutch in Reading…