How The Rijksmuseum, National Gallery, And Smithsonian Are Putting Digital Images Online

The New York Times takes a fascinating look at the ways a number of prominent museums are handling the question of how to digitize and make available their collections for public use, balancing the importance of public access against copyright, the need to preserve revenue from merchandise and reproductions:

The [Rijksmuseum], whose collection includes masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Mondrian and van Gogh, has already made images of 125,000 of its works available through Rijksstudio, an interactive section of its Web site. The staff’s goal is to add 40,000 images a year until the entire collection of one million artworks spanning eight centuries is available, said Taco Dibbits, the director of collections at the Rijksmuseum…

At the National Gallery in London, the collection of 2,500 artworks has been digitized and made available for academic purposes, but the museum has not provided free downloads. “Everyone understands that open access is the way to go, but organizations are in different places, and we’re facing a conflicting set of challenges,” said Charlotte Sexton, the head of digital media at the museum. “On the one hand, museums are still making money from the sale of images. That income, though, has been decreasing. You have that commercial concern butting up against this desire to go for free access.”

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has 137 million works in its coffers and has chosen 14 million of those for digitization, said a spokeswoman, Linda St. Thomas. It has made about 860,500 images, video clips, sound files, electronic journals and other resources available online, but the images of artworks are all low resolution — again, to discourage commercial use.

To a certain extent when it comes to simple attendance, museums and movie theaters face similar challenges in the digital age. Every movie I’ve been to recently has included a trailer—often for an action movie like Live Free Or Die Hard or Fast and Furious Six—that shrinks towards the end from the full screen down to the size of a television or computer screen to make the argument that much of the experience is lost if you watch the movie at home rather than in a cinema. Museums can make a similar argument on any number of levels, whether that a massive piece like Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Civil War lament “Guernica” demands to be seen and experienced in person, that even high-quality digital reproduction can’t capture the real texture of brushstrokes, and, the killer app, that it’s one thing to see individual works reproduced online, and another to see them in the context of each other in a curated gallery. There’s no question that digital reproduction poses a challenge to all sorts of lines of business for museums. But the industry is perhaps fortunate in that its core product, visits to its galleries, doesn’t seem to face the competition from digital reproduction that movie theaters clearly feel from digital distributors like Netflix and Amazon.