The only way is open

Lewis Hine, Icarus, Empire State Building, 1930, acc. no. 
1987.1100.486. The Met, public domain.

I’m an open culture geek. For almost ten years, I have been following the slow, but steady evolvement of open access to digitized cultural heritage. I’ve been absorbed (my closest kin might say obsessed) with what is referred to as the OpenGLAM movement. Every time another museum, library, or archive announced that they were letting go of control over how our common cultural heritage may be used, it made my heart sing. Because this is what we are here for, as a sector: To make the results of human creativity from all times and all corners of the world accessible to all citizens, to foster new knowledge and inspire new creativity. I lose track of the times I have reiterated, to myself and to anyone willing to listen, that “our understanding of research, education, artistic creativity, and the progress of knowledge is built upon the axiom that no idea stands alone, and that all innovation is built on the ideas and innovation of others.” — one of the first statements about the value of a cultural commons I encountered, and to this day one of the most beautiful I know.

Yesterday, the 7th of February, marked a milestone for open access to cultural heritage. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the largest art museums in the world, with a collection so vast and broad and deep that it can truly be called encyclopedic, announced its release of 375,000 images to the public domain.

The Met is a champion among art museums, with an estimated 1.5 million objects in their world famous collection, and 6.7 million visitors through the door a year. Their open access program sets a new gold standard for digital museum practice. With it, they recognize that their collection is made up of artifacts created by the peoples of the world. By releasing their digital copies they are placing that collection where it belongs — in the hands of the people. When a heavyweight like The Met embraces open access, the rest of the museum world is bound to follow its lead.
Providing online access to such a vast collection creates the basis for new discovery, new research, new history writing, by Internet-connected citizens all over the planet. That’s more than 3.5 billion people, and counting. With free access to digitized heritage from the trusted source of the museum that holds the originals, all these people can take part in exploring our common cultural heritage. Not just from the safety distance necessarily imposed on visitors in the physical galleries, but up close and personal, virtually touching and turning the objects, diving beneath their surfaces, even sampling and remixing them.

At The Met’s press conference yesterday, Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley stated,

“Sharing is fundamental to how we promote discovery, innovation, and collaboration in the digital age. Today, The Met has given the world a profound gift in service of its mission: the largest museum in the United States has eliminated the barriers that would otherwise prohibit access to its content, and invited the world to use, remix, and share their public domain collections widely and without restriction.”

Congratulations The Met for doing the right thing. Congratulations world. All of us at SMK Open celebrate this achievement with you.

But there’s no reason for our sector to rest on the laurels. The Met has made OpenGLAM mainstream. Now there’s only one way to go, and that’s open. Which grand encyclopedic museum will be next in line to hand over their digitized collection to the citizens of the world? And what about the black hole of the 20th century? The many decades of copyright protection after the passing of a creator significantly hampers our opportunities to discover, research, share knowledge, and create new culture based on our more recent cultural history. The next frontier for OpenGLAM is to work towards reform of the copyright system, bringing it up to date with how we create, use, and learn about culture in the 21st century.

Parts of this blog post are derived from a longer paper, to be published in The Journal of Museum Education in the autumn of 2017.