Inside the Museum is Outside the Museum — Thoughts on Open Access and Organisational Culture

Karin Glasemann
Published in
18 min readMar 13, 2020


St. Catherine of Alexandria, by Artemisia Gentileschi. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

“It is only when cultural institutions start using digital technologies to foster new research methods and to work collaboratively (…), that they have truly begun to think digitally.” Professor Ellen Euler.

The quote above summarises my experience of working with digitisation and digital development at Nationalmuseum, Sweden’s museum for art and design, over the last seven years. But what does the buzzword “thinking digitally” mean in a cultural organisation and what has Open Access got to do with it?

In the last few years, we have seen a paradigm shift where museums adjust or re-interpret their mission statements towards encouraging dialogue and empowering visitors to shape their own cultural experiences. Ideally, the museum’s role in this scenario shifts from being primarily a collecting, teaching and preserving institution to a more fluid role of providing access, enabling discussion and exchange.

The wider digital transformation of society partly initiated, and is fuelling, this transformation of the museum’s role. “Digital” lowers barriers of access, allows participation and discussion in a much easier form and, most importantly, it offers the potential for everyone to build upon the assets and to extend the knowledge that the museum offers.

However, this inherent potential does not mean it is used to its full extent. Although aiming to be an open institution is fundamental to most museums’ goals, a consensus on how “openness” is best achieved seems far from being reached.

Lake View at Engelsberg, Västmanland, by Olof Arborelius. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Giving up control with Open GLAM

The terms on which institutions provide access to their digital collections, to some extent, express their willingness to cede control around the stories told about those collections. How do museums design user experiences around their digitised collections? How do they encourage — or not encourage — re-use of the digital assets?

The movement known as Open GLAM builds on the premise that cultural heritage data should be shared openly, i.e. ‘Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose. The principle of openness has been a natural part of web development long before it reached the cultural heritage sector. For art museums in particular, Open GLAM means that digitisation should never add a new copyright — and thus means of control — to cultural works of art in the public domain.

In allowing free reuse, digitised collections shift from passive showcases to become raw material for every user to enjoy, learn from and build upon. Although there has been resistence against the Open GLAM movement, the growing number of institutions adopting open policies is suggestive of a slow but unstoppable momentum towards greater openness.

Apostle Paul by Jan Lievens. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Open GLAM influencers and the Nationalmuseum

The Open GLAM movement in the museum sector was spearheaded in Europe by the Rijksmuseum already in 2011, and several American institutions followed suit, with the Smithsonian Instiution as the latest, most illustrious addition to the Open GLAM crowd. Already in 2012, the first Swedish museum organisation, the government agency of Livrustkammaren och Skoklosters slott med Stiftelsen Hallwylska Museet (LSH), decided to open its image archive for unrestricted reuse, in collaboration with Wikimedia Sweden.

The Danish National Gallery, SMK, had been a strong pro-Open GLAM voice since the very beginning. It made its collection downloadable and reusable on a large scale in 2015. Shortly afterwards, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe opened its collection for free reuse, the first German art museum to do so.

These examples helped to accelerate the discussion towards more openness at Nationalmuseum, resulting in its Open GLAM policy announcement in October 2016 — a few month before the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as one of the heavyweights in the art museum sector, published its Open Access initiative in 2017.

When the Met’s Chief Digital Officer, Loic Tallon, decided to leave his post in March 2019, the Met’s Director General Max Hollein lauded his work by framing “the Open Access initiative, through which the Museum has released over 400,000 images of artworks in the collection for unrestricted use by any individual around the world” as one of his most important legacies. The Open Access initiative, said Hollein, “has transformed how The Met connects with audiences, and was greatly amplified through building strong partnerships”.

Cat on a flowery meadow by Bruno Liljefors. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Despite these positive examples, institutions still shy away from providing full access to their digitised collections, let alone free reuse. Some point out that they are not willing to give up their prerogative of interpretation. Most institutions are generally in favour of open access, but feel they need a more thorough risk assessment. They worry whether the potential benefits will outweigh the risks of opening up.

Every institution has its own set of risks and arguments that speak against joining the movement that was described as New Online Openness in 2015. But the potential benefits of Open GLAM are consistent and can be summarised as: broader reach, higher visibility, more users and more intense collaboration with the museum’s audiences.

Does this mean Open GLAM automatically “transforms the way we connect with audiences”, as Max Hollein stated? Let’s have a closer look at what happened before, during and after the Nationalmuseum decided to implement what we have come to call our “OpenGLAM-Policy”.

The Artist’s Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Balancing the risk of harm with the public good

Nationalmuseum launched its Open GLAM policy in 2016, following intense internal discussions, including, but not limited to: costs of technical infrastructure to provide access to the collections; missing resources for digitization and metadata cataloguing; loss of income by not being able to sell image licences anymore and concerns about morally inappropriate use of the artworks. Based on Simon Tanner’s research, the feared loss of income was declared a myth by Merete Sanderhoff in 2013. Even for Nationalmuseum it was true that the museum was no longer generating profit by selling images. I will come back to the inevitable question of investing into digital infrastructure, but want to start by discussing the fear of misuse.

Most of our institutions are doing their best to be open and inviting places. And yet 46% of the citizens who do not participate in art or design museums cited “It’s not for someone like me” as a barrier. In discussions about open licences the question of misuse always arises. And while I agree that there might be sensitive collections that should not be reusable without limits outside a scientific sphere, when it comes to art, we should question ourselves how much a closed image licensing policy will communicate an attitude of “this collection is not for someone like you” in the digital sphere.

As Hamilton and Saunderson point out, if you are struggling with the loss of control, it is extremely helpful to break down the vague “risk of abuse” to the very precise questions: “If […] control is lost, how will this damage us? Will it damage the material? The information’s veracity?”

And while thinking about veracity, it is worth posing the opposite question: “Will restrictive licensing damage us, the material, the public or the information’s veracity?”. It is important to remember that closed licenses do not safeguard the museum’s recourses from being misused. I believe that the harm done to the public, the material and especially to the information’s veracity and retrievability is far greater if the material is not opened for reuse than the potential risk of abuse. If the material cannot easily be reused, “scholarship [is] left undone, knowledge not preserved for the next generation, creative use of digital opportunities truncated”.

Restrictive licences don’t always stop bad people from doing bad stuff with the museum’s material, but they will always stop good people from doing good.

Fortunately, during its almost six-year renovation, Nationalmuseum took the view that if it was going to reopen a physical museum for everyone, it needed to make sure that its collections were perceived as everyone’s, online as well as onsite. Berndt Arell, then Director General, announced the Nationalmuseum’s Open GLAM policy in October 2016, stating:

“We are committed to fulfilling our mission to promote art, interest in art, and art history by making images from our collections an integral part of today’s digital environment. We also want to make the point that these artworks belong to and are there for all of us, regardless of how the images are used. We hope our open collection will inspire creative new uses and interpretations of the artworks.”

While such a moment might look like the end of a long development, it was just the beginning. In my opinion, open institutions which foster participation and inclusion are no longer be able to sensibly argue for restrictive licences. On the other hand, an organisation does not automatically become inclusive just by applying open access policy.

As stated earlier, the open movement was initiated and fuelled by the general digital transformation we are seeing in society. Unfortunately, digital transformation, especially in the museum sphere, is still mainly understood to be a technical issue, a problem about streamlining digital infrastructure and at best — a communication channel. In the same way, open licensing is often seen as a matter of copyright policy, IT infrastructure, or metadata cataloguing. While it is natural to start the discussion this way, we should be mindful that this transformation is about people, not techniques.

The real challenge of openness is changing a museum’s attitude towards its users, no matter where we are in the process of digitising the collections or making them available. And it is only by change attitudes that the promised and often expected benefits of open access policy can be realised.

Kalmar Castle by Moonlight, Carl Johan Fahlcrantz. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Developing open access at Nationalmuseum

The Nationalmuseum’s first and most important step, marking around 50,000 images with a CC BY-SA licence instead of ©, went almost unnoticed. It was only in 2016, when we went from CC BY-SA to Public Domain, and tethered the new policy to an active collaboration with Wikimedia Sweden and its community, that we began to see an impact.

The museum began to understand that fulfilling its mission to “provide meaningful encounters between people and art” did not necessarily mean getting people to visit the building or the website. In fact, the real opportunity to make the museum’s collections better known to a large audience was to publish them on popular platforms such as Wikipedia.

Nationalmuseum’s collaboration with Wikimedia Sweden started at a relatively small scale: 3000 high-resolution images depicting paintings in the Nationalmuseum’s collection were uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and the affiliated metadata was uploaded to Wikidata. Within a week, images had been used in over 100 articles and had been seen 104,000 times. By March 2019, the images had been used in over 1800 articles, and today they are viewed approximately 1.5 million times every month.

The news of Nationalmuseum’s Open GLAM policy attracted some national and international media coverage, but most importantly it generated a presence on social media we had not seen before. The fact that Nationalmuseum’s openly licensed images were used in an illustration by IKEA in 2019 (see image below) serves as an example how much more our artworks are now exposed to the public, even without the museum actively taking part.

Prints from Nationalmuseum’s collection are used as decoration in an IKEA post in March 2019. A user asks for the source of the images and IKEA’s answer points the user directly to the Nationalmuseum’s website and cites the free licences.

This interest around the digitised collection came as a surprise to some colleagues, but it was used in an ongoing repositioning of the museum’s brand and tone of voice by the communication team. Email exchanges with our users show how much open access was, and often still is, met with awe and thankfulness.

Open access communication at Nationalmuseum

We realised that we needed to be more vocal about our Open GLAM policy, inside and beyond the institution. The open release had created genuine interest so we needed to ensure that it remained a priority. The licensing policy quickly became a part of general training for new staff. It raised awareness of the different platforms where users could interact with Nationalmuseum’s collections without the collection being physically exhibited to the public.

In 2017 Nationalmuseum was preparing the relaunch of a new website, knowing that it would launch at a time where there was no main museum building to attract visitors to, and no major temporary exhibition. The content that we had for our digital channels before the museum reopened (in October 2018) were stories about ongoing renovation and content from the collection itself. When we saw more traffic (visits doubled) to our existing collection online as a result of the Open GLAM policy, we were thinking of more ways to make the accessibility of our collections known to the users.

The relaunched museum website, collection online and new visitor guide app which were developed for the museum reopening all put open licences in deliberately prominent positions. This might seem like a minor detail but it was important for making the concept of openness known to staff who had not dealt with this topic before.

It became evident that with every new development and new form of access that we granted our users to the collection, we would not be able to control or even follow up what they made from it. During the development of presenting the digitised collections via the main website and the visitor guide app, we realised we needed to rephrase the licence text to even simpler statements such as “The image is free to reuse”. While licences provide concise and extensive information on what the user may or may not use an image for, we realised that users unaware of the Creative Commons framework would not always understand the icons.

An artwork presented in the Nationalmuseum Visitor Guide App, and in online tours presenting different aspects of the collection.
An artwork presented in the Nationalmuseum’s online tour presenting different aspects of the collection.

Digitisation and the challenges of digital transformation

Simultaneously, Nationalmuseum was preparing for its physical reopening (having been closed since 2013) including new display of the collections after almost ten years of collections research. The discussion around how we were going to keep track of updating data and text production when preparing the new exhibitions for the reopening, shed light on what I think is a symptomatic problem when it comes to digital transformation in museums.

Many institutions are faced with a traditional gap between long-term digitisation/cataloguing process and the short term needs for exhibition projects and digital communication. Often, a lot of amazing content (and often even technology) is produced when preparing a new exhibition or program. Scientific research is carried out and a lot of facts are added, double-checked and updated. The material is published and archived, but often with no connection to ongoing digitisation and/or cataloguing work.

Long term digitisation, on the other hand, follows a precise and often static set of rules but it seldom has a specific end user in mind. To put it dramatically, collections digitisation in most museums has the somewhat vague goal to “digitise the whole collection”. It is supposed to solve all the problems in handling and documentation and to serve all scientific questions that might arise in the future. The question of metadata quality, i.e. correct attribution, dates, provenance etc. is omnipresent and often keeps institutions from publishing anything which has not been doublechecked.

At Nationalmuseum, basic information on the digitised parts of the collection has been exposed to the public since 2010, albeit with inconsistent data quality, but several institutions choose to only publish highlights instead of granting access to all their documentation. The goal is often to deliver high-quality metadata on the whole collection, but unlike exhibitions, general digitisation in museums seldom has a deadline to meet so it develops very slowly.

Most museum professionals not working exclusively in digital prioritise digitisation questions lower than all other concerns. In most cases this leads to more or less well-kept internal and online databases, of which a few members of staff have full understanding or control over. These systems often fall short for scientific interest as there is either not enough data, not concise enough data or insufficient high-quality images for most assets. On the other hand, it is often hard to build engagement around them, as communications staff do not always know what has been digitised and available, and in what quality it is documented, or even how to navigate in the internal system.

John Jennings Esq., his Brother and Sister-in-Law, by Alexander Roslin. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Redesigning information management processes

For Nationalmuseum, it was consequently focusing on the upcoming new display of the collection in almost all processes which closed that traditional gap and let the whole institution make use of the data provided. We put the collection management system at the centre of documenting the planning of the new display and kept track of all corrections, additions and updates in it. The fact that interest in our digitised collection had risen outside the institution opened our eyes for new possibilities for the material apart from the intended use as printed text in the upcoming exhibition.

Of course, the initiation of the major digitisation, cataloguing and updating project was not so much due to the Open GLAM policy. It was sparked by the necessity to physically move 400,000 objects out of the museum before the building renovation. Nonetheless, without the increased interest around our digital collections on various platforms, it would have been almost impossible to promote and effectuate the necessity of not only registering a number, title and image sufficient for logistic control, but to even oversee descriptions, missing information, dates, etc. in a centralised and sustainable way.

When the museum had agreed on how to handle the process of updating information and descriptions on over 5000 objects which would form the new presentation of the collection in the reopened museum, this information was accessible throughout the whole institution and thus usable for more purposes than just becoming a new label in the museum. Preparing labels and other information was streamlined with the digitization process, which helped growing the collection management database into a reliable knowledgebase (with mostly “good enough” images for all exhibited objects) that could be used as raw material for online storytelling and engagement via different media platforms.

A Merry Company by Jan Massys. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Opening access and minds

It might seem strange to praise the use of a more than 10-year-old internal system as a sign of successful digital transformation. However, our working routine was about having knowledge available within the institution and to trust colleagues of different expertise to handle it responsibly. In a traditional institution like Nationalmuseum, that step had been a lot harder if we had not been able to point to the Open GLAM policy throughout discussions. How could we champion the idea of Open GLAM if we do not share information freely and at eye-level internally?

At the same time, we had been experimenting at small scale on questions like how to make images available, how to build engaging entries to our digitised collection without investing too much on infrastructure or technical development. When relaunching the website, and developing a new visitor guide app, we could use those experiences to benefit on a larger scale. Our visitor guide app has good user numbers and reviews (for a museum app), but an internal joke claims that the most enthusiastic remarks must come from colleagues because everyone is so proud of it.

While I am not advocating that any of us should develope any more apps, I still like to think of that joke as an achievement. Digital transformation of an institution only works with everyone on board. We still need small-scale experiments and more lighthouse projects to guide us, but we definitely need to settle a genuine understanding of digital collaboration and openness inside the institution at a larger scale — which might just work by providing a digital service which most staff members can actively feel that they contributed to.

The Timber Chute. Winterscene. From “A Home (26 watercoulours)”, by Carl Larsson. Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Closing thoughts

While I disagree with most of the risks (such as content misuse) that are sometimes associated with Open GLAM, I want to end by pointing out that there is a challenge with a decision in favour of Open GLAM. No institution can expect that agreeing on an open policy will just “create” more interaction with the public, if nothing else changes.

It is true that “opening collections provides a vehicle for engaging institutional missions related to educating and informing the public, while inviting new practices for engaging that public”, but it needs active (and prioritised) work with those new practices for engagement and with the related communities.

Implementing open access means taking the first step in a transition that will lead to a more digital and more collaborative museum environment, externally and internally. This transition will at times be frightening and painful, but if museums want to profit from the benefits associated with Open GLAM, the first step is to acknowledge that “setting a culture in the museum where open collaboration is the norm is a prerequisite for any collaboration with other communities” (Seb Chan, 2018).

The only way to build a sustainable digital future for the cultural sector is by embracing the principles of openness and collaboration.


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Karin Glasemann

Digital Coordinator at Nationalmuseum, Sweden | Metadata and #OpenGLAM enthusiast | Chair Europeana Copyright Community