Open access can never be bad news

Merete Sanderhoff
SMK Open
Published in
6 min readMar 6, 2017
Johan Thomas Lundbye, Zealand Landscape. Open Country in North Zealand, 1842, inv. no. KMS402. SMK, public domain

Several of us responded with enthusiasm to the recent news that The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened up their digitised collections to free and unrestricted re-use. Closely after this announcement followed the news that The Met’s director Thomas Campbell resigned under pressure due to a growing financial deficit. This gave rise to a response that ties the two together, critically questioning whether The Met’s decision to stop charging for their digitised images is viable in a time of financial constraint.

As the news broke so close in time, it may feel obvious to link the two stories from The Met together. But evidence is missing what is really causing the museum’s grave deficit. For good reasons, I’m in no position to have insight on this, but I find it hard to believe that, in a vast and complex institution like The Met, it primarily has to do with overinvesting in the museum’s digital presence. (Some of the complexity is described in this New York Times article). If we want to have an informed discussion about the costs of running a museum and how to priotitize resources, the first thing we would have to demand is insight in the actual numbers—operating budgets and costs, revenue and net income, reach and impact for each area, and how they’re all weaved together. Digital is certainly one of the latest branches to have grown in the museum ecosystem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most dispensable, if we have to make priorities.

Museums all over the world are facing common challenges in the digital age. The rise of digitisation and Internet access forces us to adapt to completely new user behaviours and expectations. This is hard work. There’s a lot of uncovered ground, and it requires experimentation and investment to succeed. But it’s necessary.

Of course, every institution must make balanced decisions about how to spend their funds. But I’d like to challenge the notion that sticking to charging money for digital images would have saved The Met. Museums all over the world are learning that the business model of licensing images invented in the analogue era is under serious pressure today. When museums like the Rijksmuseum, the Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and now The Met provide free and open access to their digitised collections, it is not just to support a noble cause. It is because they understand and work with the realities of the Internet.

Boiled down to essentials, these include:

If it’s difficult and/or expensive to get images of artworks from museums, people look for them elsewhere.

Most museums lose more money than they make on image licensing.

If it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.

These are not entirely my own views. They build on years of studies and collection of evidence. See for instance Simon Tanner’s seminal study on rights and reproduction models in US museums. Consult The Problem of the Yellow Milkmaid white paper by Peter Kaufmann, Harry Verwayen and Martijn Arnoldus. Read the reports by Kristin Kelly and Effie Kapsalis analyzing the experiences of museums that have ventured into opening up their colletions for free re-use by the public.

Let’s look at one prominent example. When the Rijksmuseum released their digitised collection into the public domain, they did so informed by an important learning. They had made a google image search on some of the masterpieces in their collection, among them The Milkmaid by Vermeer. At the time, the museum still upheld traditional image licensing. Even so, digital versions of The Milkmaid were available in ten thousands of copies on the Internet — many of them in poor quality. This made the museum realize that the traditional business model of image licensing was broken. When faced with licensing fees and permission forms, people would turn to the Internet to find the images they needed, for free.

Others would have seen a violation of rights. The Rijksmuseum saw an opportunity. They saw evidence of a huge public interest in their collection, and they saw potential to build relationships with all the people out there obviously hungry for images of their artworks. They put their highest quality images online for free, and they didn’t stop there. They invited people to re-use the images for all imaginable purposes, from illustrating scholarly publications and Wikipedia articles to remixing them into new design objects. In a short time, their authorized, high-quality images ranked at the top of google searches. On the longer term, the museum reports that they are making more money with their open access policy (for instance through brand value, new partnerships, sponsors and donors) than they were on licensing images. You an read more in Europeana’s report Democratising the Rijksmuseum.

By letting go of control, the Rijksmuseum regained a new level of control with how their collection is presented online. And, they gained new kinds of income streams in the process. Digital is a palpable challenge to the museum sector. The bright solve the challenge.

Museums like the Rijksmuseum and The Met only have gallery space to make a fraction of their collections physically accessible. Only a fraction of the global population will ever visit these. Even in the case of The Met who reached 7 million visitors last year, this is still just a fraction of the more than 7 billion people in the world.

With its open access policy, in one stroke The Met has expanded its exhibition space, truly becoming one of the largest museums in the world. Their collections are created by the peoples and cultures of the world, from Asia to Europe, from Africa to America. Now, for the first time in history, everyone has access to enjoy this world heritage (at least the 3.5 billion who have an Internet connection). That’s an investment which no doubt means losing revenue now. But if done well, it can lead to administrative savings and a strong base for developing new business models more aligned to digital user behaviour patterns.

I don’t want to downplay the investments needed to brace museums for the digital era. An era where our collections don’t have to sit quietly in closed shelves only to be occasionally accessed by a select few, but where they can have hitherto unseen reach and impact into the world. Creating access to our collections is our raison d’être. The reason we collect and preserve them is because we believe they can tell people important things about the history of humankind, cultural identity, developments and differences. Without access, they are just dead objects kept in impressive containers.

Today, if a museum colletion isn’t online, it doesn’t exist to the majority of people. For generations, it was necessary to limit access to and use of image reproductions. Today, we have new possibilities. Digital is equal to shareable. Continuing to restrict use of our reproductions once they exist in digital format means effectively cutting off the majority of users out there — those who will never have the money or incentive to buy a ticket to The Met, or to an authorized image reproduction. It’s de facto a way to exert power over who gets to access, use, and enjoy world heritage.

What The Met shows with its open access program is that it doesn’t limit its definition of mission-supporting purposes to scholarly use. The program challenges, and effectively changes, who gets to engage with cultural heritage by placing it where the users are. The investment goes beyond creating access to crafting partnerships with popular platforms for cultural enjoyment and learning like Google Cultural Institute, Pinterest, and Wikipedia. Platforms like these have become hubs for online information seeking and collective knowledge sharing between millions of people. They are dependent on shareable images. Being present here is a way to ensure that the collections of The Met become visible, reachable, and thereby relevant to a far larger part of the world’s population than ever before.

As said, every museum has to make balanced decisions about how to prioritize their budgets when adapting to new developments and demands in a digital age. That’s also the sentiment behind all the research into open access I’ve devoured (some of which I refer to above). At SMK we have been taking small steps towards implementing open access at a pace that makes is sustainable for our institution. Inspired by the model of the Cooper Hewitt Museum, we are building an open API that will not only be an access point for interaction with the surrounding world, but also the backbone in our own workflow.

Open image sharing is an investment in the future. The news of The Met’s financial problems are deeply deplorable, but that doesn’t make open access less sound as a strategy. As a sector, we need long term ambitions for how to stay relevant in a changing society.

That’s why open access can never be bad news.



Merete Sanderhoff
SMK Open

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