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?