Your imagination is the only limit

Merete Sanderhoff
May 18, 2016 · 6 min read

Open museum images as building blocks in your hands

Do you know the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, whose tranquil paintings of light streaming into quiet living rooms were recently on display at the Scandinavia House in New York? Imagine such a painting turned into a 3D pop-up version, with the window openings cut out and fitted with a motorized light source and a music box. When the motor is turned on, the light will move through the window openings and let the artificial daylight move across the floor, accompanied by a quaint little tune. Or imagine 22 skies derived from 19th century paintings, arranged in a linear progression and projected onto the ceiling as an illusory opening to the sky. Or imagine an injection room for drug users in central Copenhagen, wallpapered with details from old master paintings — details selected by the drug users themselves to reflect the places and spaces of their own dreams.

Can you imagine that? We couldn’t. These are not ideas that we came up with at SMK (Statens Museum for Kunst, the national gallery of Denmark). These are initiatives fostered and realized by people outside our institution. All we did was provide the building blocks for other people’s ideas and creativity to flourish — in the shape of open digitized collections.

In 2011, SMK was invited to join the Google Art Project. This invitation came at a time when we were starting to seriously look at our image licensing policy against our mission as a publicly funded museum. Back then, we had an image policy where we would license digital surrogates of public domain artworks for money. The Google Art Project required us to share our high resolution images with them for free in order to become a partner on the platform. This became the starting point of our open access policy. We decided that if we were going to give away high quality images for free to a private corporation (Google), we should release those same images into the public domain for everyone to enjoy and use them. Our decision was greatly encouraged by the principles set out in the Europeana Public Domain Charter, which establish that,

Digitisation of Public Domain content does not create new rights over it: works that are in the Public Domain in analogue form continue to be in the Public Domain once they have been digitised.

This may sound bold, but we started really small! We didn’t have the resources to share a lot at the time, and we didn’t have a proper interface for automatic download of high resolution images. But we had recently prepared 160 highlights for our website, with texts and multimedia interpretation, and although it felt like a very modest contribution that’s what we started out with. It made us feel kind of embarrassed because at the same time we were seeing museums like the National Gallery of Art, the Walters Art Museum, Rijksmuseum, and LACMA releasing ten thousands of images in beautiful, well-designed interfaces.

Do you know Michael Edson? Until recently, he was the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, and in that capacity he was on the advisory board of SMK. Back in 2011, when we discussed our plans with him and our concern that we couldn’t live up to the high standards of our peers abroad, he said something simple yet significant to us: What can you do today? So we took our small 160 piece collection and put it online for free download in the highest resolution available with the message to the public: Please re-use, no restrictions, no need to ask permission, do what you care for. We took Michael’s advice to Think Big, Start Small, and Move Fast.

What has happened since then? Our 160 images have spearheaded an organisational change towards radical openness. Not just on the policy level, establishing an open access policy for our digitised collections in the public domain, but importantly, on the mindset level too. Our vision today is to “redefine the museum in the 21st century, working to strengthen a creative and reflective society that values its history and acknowledges diversity”, and it is our mission “to be a catalyst for users’ creativity and learning”.

We have run a range of pilot projects based on the 160 images. They have been used for decorative interventions in public spaces, interior design products, public school programs, remix exhibitions, film productions, apps, blogs, etc. An important early learning was that providing access was not sufficient in itself. In a cultural environment where the public is used to museums acting as gatekeepers, we need to go out of our way to help people discover our resources and understand that they are in fact welcome to use them for anything they like. Your imagination is the only limit. We have learned so much from going out there and interacting with people who use our common cultural heritage in ways we would have never dreamed of ourselves.

Based on the many positive results from the pilot projects, we have reached a new understanding of what our collections can achieve in the digital age. Once digitised, the artworks become more than evidence of the imagination and craftmanship of people past. They become building blocks in the hands of creative people now and in generations ahead.

How do we actively help members of the public draw new value from our digitised collections? We work with public school teachers to tailormake art packages that support local conditions and national curricula. We encourage artists and designers to re-use public domain art in their work and products. We run the Young People’s Art Lab where young creatives meet up weekly to facilitate community outreach programs drawing on our open collections as a key resource. We make sure our collections are shared all over the web, so people can find them on their prefered platforms — Europeana, Google Cultural Institute, Wikimedia etc. We host monthly Wiki Labs where art amateurs, curators, and Wikipedians get together to improve access to knowledge about art and quality images of artworks in the biggest, most widely used encyclopedia in the world.

Today, openness is at the heart of SMK’s strategy. Our open access policy tells you that the digital versions of public domain artworks in our collections are public domain too. We have managed to put 25,000 images online. Not all of them are high resolution, but keeping Michael Edson’s advice to Think Big, Start Small, and Move Fast in mind, we are taking one day at a time, doing what we can when we can. Our collections are widely known and re-used on the web and social media, in research publications, by learners and creatives, and on Wikipedia where they yielded 20 million impressions in 2015 alone.

The Director of SMK, Mikkel Bogh, gets the final word:

”With our digitised collections, we can support people in being reflective, creative human beings. But the precondition is that cultural heritage is common property, and that each and every one of us can use it for exactly what we dream of (…) Our role is still more to facilitate public use of cultural heritage for learning, creativity, and innovation. Today, learning happens in reciprocity. We are all a part of the web. We shape each other.”

This speech was given at the Museums Council of New York City gathering in Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 10 May 2016.

My name is Merete Sanderhoff. I’m Curator and Senior Advisor of Digital Museum Practice at the national gallery of Denmark — Statens Museum fur Kunst, or SMK for short. Museums like the MoMA, Cooper Hewitt, Brooklyn Museum and The Met in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, the Getty Museum and LACMA in Los Angeles have hugely inspired our work developing digital museum practices at the national gallery in Copenhagen.


Open GLAM presents global perspectives on open access to the cultural heritage in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAMs). Submissions are welcome so please get in touch!

Merete Sanderhoff

Written by

Curator/Senior Advisor of digital museum practice @smkmuseum. Art historian, OpenGLAMer, chair of Europeana Network, initiator of Sharing is Caring.



Open GLAM presents global perspectives on open access to the cultural heritage in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAMs). Submissions are welcome so please get in touch!