Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum Does Digital Archives Right — Hi-Res Downloads And A Suite Of Online Editing Tools

from the remix-remake-remodel dept

Museums and copyright have historically had a somewhat strained relationship. Overly complicated copyright laws and overly long copyright terms have only made this more problematic, resulting in museum policy oddities like prohibiting photography and sketching, as the Art Institute of Chicago recently did. (Flash photography is prohibited almost universally, but more for preservation of artwork than for copyright reasons.)

In recent years, though, more and more museums are opening up and allowing the public to access their collections remotely. Many have also taken steps to digitize their collections and make these archives available for download. While many have moved in a more realistic direction, few have taken it as far as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Many museums post their collections online, but the Rijksmuseum here has taken the unusual step of offering downloads of high-resolution images at no cost, encouraging the public to copy and transform its artworks into stationery, T-shirts, tattoos, plates or even toilet paper.

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.

This collection may seem miniscule next to that of the Smithsonian, which has digitized over 14 million items from its collection. But the Smithsonian’s images are deliberately low-res, a choice it made to deter commercial use. The Rijksmuseum has no such qualms about its catalog being “exploited,” stemming from its very realistic take on the realities of the digital era.

“We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” Mr. Dibbits said in an interview. “‘With the Internet, it’s so difficult to control your copyright or use of images that we decided we’d rather people use a very good high-resolution image of the ‘Milkmaid’ from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction,” he said, referring to that Vermeer painting from around 1660.

Not only are the images hi-res, but the museum’s archive site, Rijksstudio, provides online image manipulation tools for downloaders to utilize. The site asks that users refrain from commercial use (it sells even higher resolution images for that purpose), but also tacitly acknowledges that people are going to use these works however they see fit.

“If they want to have a Vermeer on their toilet paper, I’d rather have a very high-quality image of Vermeer on toilet paper than a very bad reproduction,” he said.

Even the act of making Vermeer toilet paper is considered part of the Rijksmuseum experience.

Mr. Dibbits of the Rijksmuseum maintains that letting the public take control of the images is crucial to encouraging people to commune with the collection. “The action of actually working with an image, clipping it out and paying attention to the very small details makes you remember it,” he said.

Many have argued that allowing photography (or access to downloadable archives) takes money out museums’ pockets. After all, if you’ve seen the painting via a cell phone, why bother seeing the original? But that argument ignores why people go to museums. It’s not because the picture is remarkably different in person than when viewed as a high-res photo. It’s the whole experience. At worst, photography displaces a gift shop postcard sale. And anyone receiving a postcard from a museum knows it’s no substitute for being there.

The Rijksmuseum has gone a step or two further than most, not only by providing high-res downloads (because if it doesn’t, someone else will) but by encouraging interaction with the uploaded works with its set of digital tools. Art isn’t static. But some museums continue to pretend it is by offering low-res archives wrapped in restrictive usage limitations. Which approach to museum archives is more likely to inspire creation of new works?

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Comments on “Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum Does Digital Archives Right — Hi-Res Downloads And A Suite Of Online Editing Tools”

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DeadBolt (profile) says:

Very nicely done

Now this is how you do it correctly.

Offering it all up for free like this will encourage more people to get into art, aswell as attract more tourists to both the museum and the town.

They are even actively encouraging creativity with their studio, even giving tips on how to create something.

That and the fact that the website is well designed, layout it brilliant and it is easily accesible.

Well done on their part (and their sponsors)

RyanNerd (profile) says:

Museums and Movie Theatres

“…But that argument ignores why people go to museums. It’s not because the picture is remarkably different in person than when viewed as a high-res photo. It’s the whole experience.”

The same can be said for movie theatres. It’s not because the movie is remarkably different in person when viewed as a download. It is the whole experience.

Someone clue in the MPAA on this fact please.

Paul says:

> But that argument ignores why people go to museums. It’s the whole experience.

Yes, the Rijksmuseum would be worth visiting even without all this art in there…

Besides, for many years all customers of one of the biggest banks get/got a free “Museum Year Card”, where they can visit most museums for free. NOT having the highres downloads to force those people into the museum, would not give the Rijksmuseum extra money anyway.

And… with the prices of individual paintings in the tens of millions, a few more paying visitors would not really help, is it?

MacCruiskeen says:

“It’s not because the picture is remarkably different in person than when viewed as a high-res photo.”

I guess it depends on the art. Art objects are three dimensional objects, and even paintings and photographs have textural qualities not apparent in scans. Scale is lost. Detail is almost certain to be lost, especially for larger work. I guess if you just rush through a gallery and never really look at a work, the experience would be the same. Not to disparage the Rijkmuseum’s efforts, though; this will still be valuable for people who will never be able to go in person. I mean, I’m involved in some digital manuscript archiving myself, and it’s important because the objects are too fragile for all of the scholars who want to study them to handle.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is something about seeing physical art in person that you can’t get from a scan. These scans are amazing for any number of reasons and see good quality scans is better than seeing nothing at all but they won’t replace actually being in a room with these objects.

Which is not not me precious about art having to be physical. In fact my time at art school was largely about exploring digital work. It’s just when something is created in a physical way seeing the physical thing is more often than not seeing it as it was intended and that is a one of the key experiences of art. It’s not the only one of course but it remains a reason that going to see art is different than consuming it at home even when it’s not a performance.

out_of_the_blue says:

"encouraging interaction with the uploaded works"

Sheesh. What a grand euphemism for messing around with a paint program. Most of “art” is just similar verbiage to inflate arts, not tied to reality.

“Which approach to museum archives is more likely to inspire creation of new works?” — Likely neither. I’d bet that “artists” who either copy or digitally alter — as a serious endeavor, not just learning how to operate a program — aren’t going to transform crap into anything I’d value but are more likely to mess up any slight value in the original. (NOTE the subjectivism, kids, don’t bother with “just your opinion”, I’ve already stated that it is.)

Enlarging an image of a Campbell’s soup can is not art, it’s CRAP. Paint daubs barely recognizable as a woman with both eyes on one side of her nose is CRAP. Don’t get me started.

Funny name of the day: “Taco Dibbits”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "encouraging interaction with the uploaded works"

That’s a funny story. A lot of $100 million dollar movies are fiction. Which means, they’re not reality.

But since you think art that’s “not tied to reality” isn’t worth talking about or showcasing I guess you mean by extension they’re not worth protecting either.

Which means you’ve effectively stated that the $100 million dollar movies, which you shoehorn into every argument with all the fervent ferocity of flogging a dead horse with no name, are not worth the protection you insist for it. Not by copyright, and not by the man on the street.

Congratulations. This is about one of the hardest times you’ve argumentatively owned yourself.

Lord_Unseen says:

Re: "encouraging interaction with the uploaded works"

You know, I like you OOTB. I know that others don’t but I really do. I know that no matter how many times a day I stick a drill bit up my nose in a day, I can come here, read your comments, and realize that there’s somebody stupider than me. For that, OOTB, I thank you.

Pragmatic says:

Re: "encouraging interaction with the uploaded works"

Now, now, Blue, remember what you authoritarians don’t own the planet, therefore you can’t decide what does or doesn’t have value. Or even who actually owns it.

Riddle me this: who owns the IP on Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can painting, the designer of the label on the can or Warhol himself?

He sure as hell didn’t pay for a licence to paint it and he certainly made money from the painting… of someone else’s “intellectual property! (which the label designer is unlikely to have made a penny on because Campbells own the IP rights on their artwork, etc.)”

Expects to see Blue’s head implode as he/she/it tries to untangle the web of IPR

Ben (profile) says:


The MET also provides HD images of their collection, e.g. this bodice my wife was recently viewing.

If you click on the picture you get a nice inspection tool (and a download link in the lower right).

It seems that more museums are doing this, but I guess the Smithsonian doesn’t quite understand that they are the People’s museum, and “their” collection belongs to the whole country.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

My recent dealings with my local (yet world class) museum and their notions of copyright showed they don’t have a clue about how copyright works or how to make their collections available to the world.

There are centuries of art in the public domain but the “guardians” of that art refuse to do anything except hang it on a wall and hope you’ll travel from wherever just to look at it.

I’d hate to think they’re holding our culture hostage just so they can sell some calendars in a gift shop.

The art world needs a massive digitization movement.

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