Why your institution should free up its images and metadata

This week the Smithsonian’s Wikimedian-in-Residence Sarah Stierch wrote an article about the NGA‘s March 2012 open-access policy provision that “provided online visitors the the chance to download high resolution images of their collections which fall into the public domain. (source here)” The total, she says, amounts to “22,988 images to date” and you can read her full article, which details the NGA’s plans to increase that number to 45,000 images by 2014, at the link provided above.

While Yale, the Walters Art Museum, LACMA, the Brooklyn Museum, the British Library, and several other institutions are doing this, it’s important that a national institution jumped onboard, setting a precedent for the necessity to put authority-images out in the open. Hopefully now the floodgates will open and dozens of others will follow in their footsteps. Why is this important? Well, several reasons, but I’ll list two.

1.) Giving users access to our stuff makes our websites more meaningful, more engaging, and thus, more impactful.

  • This topic has been breached most notably by Koven Smith of the Denver Art Museum. He argues that we need to open up more innovative discussions that ask the question: What’s the point of a museum website? Specifically, he points out how silly it is to include museum “collections” as thumbnail images that hardly relate to the in-person experience. As a person who works directly with metadata and collections all the time, I have to wholeheardedly agree with him. The truth, supported by dozens of research studies, is that your online visitors are there for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily to visit in person. And, that’s okay. We need to use websites in a new way, finding the benefits in no longer being bound by traditional museum walls.

It’s not about creating more content,” says Koven Smith, “but creating better access to that content.

  • Khan Academy’s Dr. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker Agree. In this blog post they say restrictions limit influence: “The more museums restrict their images, the more works of art appear on the web in poor-quality reproduction, without color controls and without proper metadata. Restrictive museum policies seek to retain authority, but in practice render the museum’s expertise largely irrelevant for those beyond its walls.”

2.) Offering freely downloadable, Hi-Res images is one way that Art Historical institutions can stop failing their online users.

  • James Cuno, past Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and newly instated President of the J. Paul Getty Foundation is all for open-access images. So are educators. So are lots of tech enthusiasts, users, librarians and archivists, and students. In fact, everyone who works in art collections can tell you that it was more possible to find high-quality images in older mediums (i.e. slide libraries, microform) than it seems to be today. Seems backward, but it’s true. The problem is that some stakeholders – largely those focused on financial gain – are still fighting for image control. William Noel has commented: “The policymakers…don’t like the idea that reproductions of these images can be available for free. It feels to them like you are denigrating your greatest asset.” But, Noel has also stated: “Data is going to die if it’s not used.”
  • When institutions choose not to make high-quality images downloadable online, it doesn’t push users to view them from the institution’s source website. It’s much more likely, in fact, that those users revert to low-res Google Image versions of the image they were looking for. That means they’re never actually visiting the one of few places where they can learn the history and context behind that image. Yes, it’s true that the analytics of where that image goes after you release it into the wild might be difficult to track, but it’s hard to make an argument that locking them up will increase your relevance, the knowledge about your collections, or bring more people through your doors.


If the point is to bring users to engage with and learn from carefully collected and curated collections, what better can we do than to give people than full, unadulterated access? That way, at least institutions can share their knowledge of the work and inform users of its context. There’s a valuable teaching moment here that your museum should recognize and be excited about!

Does this mean people will download timeless artworks and photoshop penises onto them? Yes (but they’re probably doing that already). It also means that new creative spaces for image re-use and discussion can be built – and here there is a whole world of possibility. Take the Rijksmuseum’s Rijks Studio for example. Allowing image downloads also means Wikipedia articles with better source images, and that scholars, educators, universities, and museums can share these images on large screens, assembled in new ways, and discuss the details of pieces more closely.