Inside a New Museum (Part 2): Navigating Contemporary Copyright

George Oates
M+ Labs
Published in
9 min readAug 6, 2019


In part two of ‘Inside a New Museum’, designer George Oates writes about her two-week data residency at M+ along with developer Dan Catt. Read part one here.

Showing vs Hiding

Before the residency began, I was curious about how M+ is thinking about the opportunities afforded by twenty-first century museum practices (like open data, open collection imagery, etc). I had noticed that the public API doesn’t yet contain links to collection images, and that the museum had released a subset of its collection metadata, and I was curious to know more about that.

With the best intentions to be open and work in public, it’s often challenging for institutions to commit fully without putting real resources (money, time, people) behind it. This is doubly complex when your catalogue must also be in two languages, since each record requires translation. It’s also not a straight shot from a catalogue to an open catalogue, because there’s often information about objects and their value, donors, or collectors that isn’t public, and could even be a security risk.

These two factors have led to a gradual process of opening up for M+. There’s real, daily work happening now to prepare the catalogue data to be open, and what’s exciting is a) how far the museum has come already, and b) that it’s initiated a modern trajectory. The catalogue is alive, and in flux. It’s being edited and improved every day, and the whole M+ crew is contributing to that in different ways, all with a view towards the opening day of the building, and the museum’s digital presence. The digital team’s efforts around the new Collections Beta are a testament to this: show as much as we can, as soon as we can.

Certainly we’ve seen more and more institutions release their own digital imagery of collection objects into the public domain, like the Rijksmuseum or The Met, and that’s a position increasingly taken around the world: we’ve created these photographs of works in the public domain, own copyright to those photographs, and choose to contribute them to the Commons. It’s not that simple at M+, because the collection is modern, copyright is still very much in play, and artists’ rights must be respected.

That may create tension, however, with contemporary public perceptions of experiencing museums: I visit, I photograph, I publish, I leave. Here is how the Tate in London tries to set rules around it:

Photography in the main galleries is allowed for personal, non-commercial purposes only. It is the visitor’s responsibility to ensure no copyright is infringed. The use of flash and tripods is prohibited.

Photography in the paying exhibitions is not permitted at any time, unless otherwise stated. If permitted it must be for personal, non-commercial use only. It is the visitor’s responsibility to ensure no copyright is infringed. The use of flash and tripods is prohibited.

There’s a related shift in what people expect to access online. We can already see so much imagery from artists online, today, and some artists and museums are getting out in front of that. There’s opportunity here too, as Taco Dibbits, (now) Director of the Rijksmuseum, says in Masterworks for One and All:

‘We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,’ Mr. Dibbits said in an interview. ‘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 of the Milkmaid from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction,’ he said, referring to that Vermeer painting from around 1660.

Copyright vs Expectations vs Distribution with Consent

It’s an interestingly wiggly situation for a museum with such a contemporary collection, made by living artists, whose works are still clearly in copyright. But perhaps it’s also an opportunity to adapt and blend contemporary expectations and the web’s remarkable capacity to place information at everyone’s fingertips.

Could there be a new emphasis on digital distribution of contemporary works on behalf of artists? Do artists think differently today about distribution of their work? Have you asked them? Are they protective in the same way they used to be, or are attitudes changing? How could acquisitions and registrations of new works be approached more positively or proactively today?

A favourite artist of mine, Koo Jeong A, self-publishes her works on Instagram, while her ‘professional presence’ is somewhat more restrained. Another favourite, James Bridle, documents his work on his website for our benefit.

Does this indicate a shift in artist representation? Is this the start of a sea change that a new museum could embrace by providing supporting services?

What Does the Museum Share?

There’s no denying that it’s a complex issue! The great thing is that M+ acknowledges this up front, and is working on ways to address it positively. Their latest data release nods towards the challenge of open access around in-copyright works, by including computer generated colour summaries of works that have been photographed. That means you can know, at least, what colour things are. If I like pink (which I do), I can find pink things to look at.

Screenshot from the colour picker on the M+ Collections beta website.

I wanted to explore whether it might be possible to show the form of a work, instead of just its colour distribution. I played with the idea of ‘pixelation for privacy’ — like those stock photography images where the face is blocked out by pixels.

Could a treatment like this provide necessary obscurity to prevent copying, while still giving a sense of the work? Or would this just be an (offensive, invasive) derivative work, that doesn’t respect the artist’s rights or desires for sharing their work? What if you could squint at something like this instead of nothing?

A sketch I made to represent the idea of ‘preserving privacy’ of artworks.

Compare, for example, the above pixelations with the originals: Eileen Chang and Her Characters by Wilson Shieh Ka-ho, Portraits of Cantonese Opera. Chan Ka-ming by Michael Wolf,and Lanwei 49 / Resort in Silk Road 03 / Dunhuang by Stanley Wong.

The end result of this idea was that it was not going to be possible to do this for the whole of the M+ Collections with permission, and there was the interesting concern that these would be perceived as the actual art, so we abstained.

What we did instead was to create a reconstituted pixelated version of the original work using the proportional colour information. We affectionately named this ‘the Woodchipper’.

Left : Michael Wolf, Portraits of Cantonese Opera. Chan Ka-ming, 2012, UV colour inkjet print on Duratrans. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Michael Wolf, 2012. © Michael Wolf . Right : the woodchipped version of the work.

Dan added a refresh function to the Woodchipper too, so it would change slightly every five seconds or so, to try to help address the concern that someone might think it was a work of art. (He also tweaked the idea in a few more ways, which I’ll show you below.)

Who Are the Living Artists?

As we built out and refined the spelunker, we were able to create clickable views into the main data fields, like this:

Simple UI to explore data fields.

The museum has some basic information on the artists and practitioners in the collections, and I was interested in visually showing how many of them were active. Here’s a sketch I drew in the early hours of morning, while very jet lagged:

Sketch for visualisation of artist or organisation’s lifespan.

And here is the digital version, showing all people and organisations in the data:

Above the line, we know a birth and death date, and below, there’s no death date.

Then, we could also scope that visual, to show the 172 people or organisations from Hong Kong:

Hong Kong artists and organisations.

Or all the design firms in the collection:

Design Firms.

We can know the who, where, when, and what for everyone, and that’s a fun way to explore, too.

Show Everything

This principle not only includes showing all metadata wherever possible, but also the way we operate in a residency like this, communicating openly and often with our core client team — in this case the Digital team — and reaching into the rest of the organisation if and when it makes sense. Hello Data Group, hello Rights & Reproductions, hello Curatorial, hello Collections! It’s always interesting to get first responses to our work from the people that live with the data all day long.

Diane, Ellen, Chris & Lara / Ben / Diane’s finger.

Even more exciting is when staff respond to your work while you’re in the building, the way that Collection Database Assistant Ben Lau did when he saw an example of previous G,F&S work we’d made to represent the size of objects in digital space by comparing them to the size of a tennis ball. Called the dimension-drawer, we created it for the British Museum’s Waddesdon Bequest Gallery a while back. Ben set about generating dimension information in the way that the dimension-drawer needs it, and delivered it the next day! We were then able to incorporate it into the spelunker and add a JavaScript version to the version already on Github, made using the Ruby programming language.

Screenshot of dimension-drawer in action, showing the size of Materialised Sketch of a Round Back Chair. Design Firm: Front, Materialised Sketch of a Round Back Chair, 2005, thermoplastic powder, M+, Hong Kong. © Front Design. Courtesy the artist and Friedman Benda.
Screenshot of dimension-drawer in action, showing the size of Tokaido Shinkansen Line Launch Anniversary Stamp. Publisher: Japan Post Co., Ltd., Tokaido Shinkansen Line Launch Anniversary Stamp, 1959, paper, M+, Hong Kong. © All rights reserved.

A Toy

As I mentioned, our Woodchipper idea was really just a fun toy we made in response to the challenge of the initial pixelation idea. Dan leant on his work with the dimension-drawer to create a colourised cityscape version of each work too — we were both really inspired by the Hong Kong skylines and architecture.

Here’s is Michael Wolf’s Portraits of Cantonese Opera. Chan Ka-ming depicted as a city:

Portraits of Cantonese Opera. Chan Ka-ming by Michael Wolf depicted as a city.

Here is Wilson Shieh’s lovely Eileen Chang and her Characters:

Eileen Chang and her Characters by Wilson Shieh depicted as a city.

Dan even created this so that one or two small parks were placed in the cityscape versions, just like in the real Hong Kong.

Shared visibility of work and especially shared intent is difficult in any museum, especially the larger ones. I’ve often witnessed groups and departments in the same museum working in isolation from each other. That said, it’s such an exciting time for M+, as there’s strong team movement towards the opening of the magnificent new building; about 130 people dancing to the same tune. The team is growing fast, and the museum is in the spotlight. I really enjoyed learning how the museum is aligning itself around the catalogue, translating everything into two languages, checking and balancing how the collections are and will be represented into the twenty-first century.

Our work helped spark new conversations in the museum. Seeing the collections as a whole instead of bit by bit leads to new questions about its works and where to direct efforts (to fill gaps, for example). Even something as simple as sharing the spelunker with new members of the staff to help them grasp the extent and shape of the collections can be useful, and that’s a new use case for a spelunker, which I like very much.

With best of luck, good wishes, and thank you to Lara, Diane, Ruby, Angel, Hester, Jim, Tom, Doryun, Veronica, Winnie, Ruby, Ari, Chris, Ellen, Amy, Karina, Diarne, and Andrew for being so open to two guests, and, of course, to Dan Catt, for being the best technical wife a girl could hope for.



George Oates
M+ Labs

Designer interested in what Museum means. Loitering with intent. Director of @goodformand, CEO of @_museuminabox, thinking out loud at @thesmallmuseum.