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GIFs that keep on giving — a look back at GIF IT UP India

After organising India’s first ever cultural heritage animation contest, Medhavi Gandhi discusses how GIF IT UP came about, who was involved and how it went. She interviews the participating museums, shares insights into audience engagement, and evaluates the event’s influence on open access in India.

No matter how you pronounce the word, GIFs are universally loved. In just a few seconds, they can enliven conversations, communicate a range of emotions and capture people’s attention. Imagine if we used the power of GIFs to bring cultural heritage collections to life!

A brief history of GIF IT UP

Europeana, a digital platform (that works with thousands of European archives, libraries and museums to share cultural heritage for enjoyment, education and research) has been organizing the international GIF-making contest ‘GIF IT UP’ since 2014. During the competition, open access content from hundreds of museums and libraries are offered for the public to remix as GIFs.

The initiative allows for an engaged viewing of art; GIF IT UP submissions are made available on GIPHY to reach much greater audiences and reuse. The popularity of art GIFs can be understood by the 285 million views (and counting!) on Europeana’s GIPHY channel. Over the years, digital libraries such as Trove (Australia), Digital NZ (New Zealand) and DPLA (USA) have joined Europeana in this celebration of open access and digital cultural heritage.

Enter: India!

In July 2020, The Heritage Lab collaborated with DAG Museums to introduce a GIF IT UP Challenge in India (with support from Europeana) with an aim to bring Indian art into mainstream conversation. The idea was simple: DAG Museums would release some artworks from their collection under a CC-BY-SA license for audiences to remix as GIFs.

13 artworks from DAG Museums are now open access

Through GIF IT UP India, our aim was to initiate dialogue about open access and reuse of digital cultural heritage; to demonstrate the benefits from an institutional point of view and address the lack of clarity around the topic. Some of the most commonly asked questions around open access and its reuses in India are:

How would open access benefit museums that earn revenue from sale of image rights?

What kind of opportunities do open access collections offer for institutions?

What background work would the museum need to do?

During the one-month challenge, we consistently shared interesting GIFs — freshly created ones based on the DAG collection as well as some from Europeana GIPHY collection as inspiration. We designed tutorials, an Instagram quiz and gathered considerable community support on the platform.

The result: 104 GIFs were submitted based on 13 artworks, and the reach of #gifitupindia stood at 161.5K. Over nearly 2 months during this year’s pandemic, the biggest success of GIF IT UP was the way it made audiences feel.

Since GIF IT UP was a short term initaitive for DAG, we could track its immediate impact with respect to public engagement. Understanding the results of GIF IT UP India was crucial for DAG and served an impetus as they continue to work on making their museums more accessible to people.
The engagement metrics further serve as evidence for other institutions to understand the various ways in which open collections can impact their relationship with audiences.

How GIF IT UP encouraged India’s Open GLAM journey

Collections at DAG

DAG World is a premier art gallery that was established in 1996 by Ashish Anand. Anand had the vision of gaining recognition for India’s modern masters, whose legacies had been lost to time and apathy in the absence of sufficient viewers, collectors, promoters, curators or scholars.

Their recent museum initiative is a part of DAG’s mission of institution building: making art accessible and part of our shared legacy, by creating cultural spaces for critical thinking, creative expression and dialogue. DAG has established three museums, with exhibitions dedicated to different topics of Indian culture.The Drishyakala in Delhi explores the development of Indian modern art from the 18th century onwards; the Eternal Benaras in Varanasi is a celebration of the city of Varanasi in art;and Ghare Baire in Kolkata showcases 18–20th century art from Bengal.

Between Drishyakala and Ghare Baire, over 1500 artworks have been allocated to the museum collections from DAG’s vast collection of Indian Art. While the entire art collection of DAG has been digitized already, digitizing archives of artists’ books, letters, and personal artefacts is an ongoing process.

Since DAG Museums is a fairly recent initiative (2019), the bigger question around open access at this stage was:

“Should we wait until we have established the institutional framework or should we start incrementally?”

The idea of GIF IT UP was well-timed, and would allow the institution to think deeper about opening up.

I spoke to Sumona Chakraborty (Deputy Director of the Ghare Baire Museum Exhibition) who made GIF IT UP India a reality.

Sumona Chakravarty’s work explores the role of art in society, testing its potential in building relationships and creating new visions for the future. She is the Founder of Hamdasti, a Kolkata-based artists collective, that has been working on Chitpur Local, a community-based art project in the historic Battola area of Chitpur Road. Her work is participatory in nature, engaging diverse communities over a long period of time and collaboratively intervening in public spaces. Sumona is a graduate of the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Bangalore, with a Masters degree from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. She has been a Fellow in the ArtThink South Asia Program at Khoj, Delhi and at the Global Cultural Leaders Program, hosted by the European Union.

What was your initial motivation to host GIF IT UP?

One of the drivers for opening up collections is to make iconic works of Indian art a cultural currency accessible to all, and circulated widely in the public domain. Like a Starry Night, or a Mona Lisa, our museums have artworks that are integral to South Asia’s history and should be a part of our collective imagination. The initial idea was actually for our team to create GIFs or stickers that could be in the public domain, but when you introduced the idea of a GIF-making contest that opened up many more possibilities. We had also been trying to find ways to support a creative community around the museum. We felt that a museum should function as a platform for artists and cultural practitioners, and be a space for collective creation. We were developing various programs around this idea. GIF IT UP helped us marry the two goals.

“GIF IT UP was aligned to DAG’s mission of creating a shared public legacy of art. Through our museums’ initiative we have been able to make art accessible to a wider audience and now we are further deepening these engagements through our programs, online and offline. GIF IT UP demonstrated how art and art history can continue to be relevant in the present moment and continue to drive popular culture. Becoming the first institution in India to join the Open GLAM movement was also a wonderful takeaway and we hope to be at the forefront of the dialogue around open museums.”
Ashish Anand [Founder & CEO, DAG]

Before hosting GIF IT UP, how aware were you about Creative Commons licenses? What about the senior leadership?

We were familiar with Creative Commons but did not have a detailed understanding of the various licences. Yes, we did review the implications of each license — we did not want to lose the ability to commercially reproduce the artworks in our own publications and memorabilia, and also ensure that the source/collections attribution was still linked to DAG.

What we were clueless about was, the platforms where we could publish these collections.

“What would be the implications of publishing on The Heritage Lab website or Flickr or Wikimedia Commons — or all three? We didn’t know much about this or where to find the information.”

It is usually very difficult to build a case for open access artworks in India. Did you face any challenges?

Opening up collections may sometimes feel very daunting — you can feel like you have many steps to take before you open it up- digitize, research, document, archive, improve your website, restructure your institution, etc.

So, our motivation for enabling remix and animation of artworks, and building a creative community was an easier entry point. This way we could look at the process incrementally — look at just a few artworks and weigh the benefits and risks of opening these up.

The bigger challenge was to choose the artworks.

How did you choose the artworks? Who was involved?

On behalf of the museum team, I reviewed our collection and created a long list. Some of the criteria were: featuring well and lesser known names; selecting artworks that have been published and circulated and hence were just one step away from becoming a part of the public domain; selecting artworks that could be easily edited and animated and had the potential for creative interpretation, including adequate representation of our favourite cat!

The selection was reviewed by Ashish Anand, and our Senior VP, Ritu Vajpeyi Mohan, who is anchoring the museums program in Delhi. I created a final list based on their feedback.

What has been the impact of GIF IT UP for DAG?

The more obvious impact has been the increased engagement beyond our social media bubble. We received entries from all parts of India (34 cities!), especially outside of the main cities. The balance of deep and wide engagement and growth of a museum community are just some of the immediate results we see.

What will be the way forward for DAG in terms of open access? Is there going to be a policy that will be developed?

We certainly want to make the art at the museums more accessible in the public domain for education, remix, reinterpretation. The modality of this is still an ongoing discussion, and the success of GIF IT UP will certainly be an important influence in these conversations.

Conclusion

  • In India, GLAMs face a constant struggle to win audience attention. In the absence of a demonstrated impact, the efforts and motivation to open collections can quickly lose steam. DAG’s approach works wonderfully because there is an additional responsibility to prepare audiences simultaneously for a digital-participation culture.
  • Opening 13 artworks from the collection also put DAG Museums on the OpenGLAM survey — a first for any museum in India. Apart from the ‘reputation-benefit’, this also positions DAG Museum as a thought-leader in the Indian GLAM sector.
  • Though DAG Museums made their open collection accessible through Flickr (with a link on The Heritage Lab website); we will also be using platforms such as Wikimedia Commons, and explore Unsplash. The idea was to keep tracking the number of views and downloads; expand distribution as much as possible.
  • Our survey also indicated that a mere 11% viewed and downloaded the GIFs that were created. We realize that we need to work on our efforts to promote the use of these art GIFs.

Follow Medhavi Gandhi on Twitter and visit The Heritage Lab website. Explore the GIF IT UP channel on GIPHY.

About this story

This story was written thanks to an open call funded by Creative Commons Open GLAM Platform. This is part of a series of articles that will be published in the Open GLAM Medium publication, that have been supported with the goal of showcasing stories around the world on Open GLAM. Find out more here.

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Medhavi Gandhi

Cultural heritage + public engagement; art + activism; history + creative inquiry learning. Museum Ninja at The Heritage Lab. Content + Consulting (Digital).