The Culture Paradox - the challenge of Digital Rights and Museums

Nick Poole discusses how the puzzles of copyright are impacting on museums and the successful creation of a digital cultural heritage.

Image: CC-BY-NC 20 Capitu

When did you last visit a museum? If it was in the last 12 months, you aren’t alone. According to Government figures (PDF), 47.9% of the UK population visited a museum during 2011. And it’s not just the UK - 57% of respondents to the 2009 Nation Brands Index cited culture as the strongest influence on their choice of holiday destination.

There are many reasons for the current boom in museum visits. Some ascribe it to the ‘staycation’, others that people are looking for meaning in a turbulent world. But whatever the cause of this rise in real-world interest, it marks an equally significant surge in engagement with the online offer of museums.

Nearly 26.1% of the adult population of the UK visited a museum website in 2011. Consumers increasingly expect to engage with museums not just directly, but through online, social and distributed channels.

The mission to share knowledge is encoded in the DNA of museums. The industry-standard definition of a ‘museum’ from the Museums Association says – “Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for societ

If the purpose of museums is to enable people to enjoy, learn from and use the collections in their care, then the expectation is increasingly that this will happen online. For UK museums to fulfil their civic duty in a connected world, we have to find a way of translating at least 200m objects from atoms into electrons, describing them and then storing them in perpetuity

The scale of this task is bewildering. The recent Collections Trust report The Cost of Digitising Europe’s Heritage put the total bill across the EU at nearly EUR10bn a year for the next decade. In the UK, an investment of almost £150m has enabled us to digitise an estimated 5-10% of our total holdings.

‘But wait’, I hear you cry, ‘I have a camera, I can help you out without spending the equivalent of the GDP of Spain’. And crowdsourcing can certainly help. But the digitisation of museum collections is about selection and preparation and producing images that support scientific analysis – examples include determining the sex of an insect by counting the hairs on its back leg and dating a Chinese plate by the cracks in its glaze.

Golden Insect by Peter Halasz CC-BY-SA 2.5

So the transition from physical culture to digital culture is similar in scale to other public works like building roads & railways – in an ideal world, it would be supported by the public because it inspires and educates us all and helps us to imagine a better futur

But in reality 2008-2012 has seen the sharpest decline in public funding for museums in several generations. Larger museums have seen effective cuts of 5-6% on core budgets, while many smaller museums have experienced a real-terms loss of income of up to 25-30%. These cuts have forced many to introduce admission charging for the first time in years.

So, if the Government isn’t investing in the digitisation of culture, if Google isn’t around to pick up the tab and if there is barely enough money to run the venues, how can we make the most of the once-in-a-generation opportunity of digitisation?

Like every other industry, museums have made the transition from the early days of the Internet, through the Social Web and towards the Internet of Things. At each stage, the expectation has increased that digital surrogates of publicly-owned collections will be made freely available, not just to see, but to share, mash up and reuse via open API (Application Programming Interface).

And museums have worked hard to embrace openness – the British Museum, for example, recently published its collections as linked data through a SPARQL endpoint. The Collections Trust’s own Culture Grid provides an API to almost 2m collections records. But our efforts in this direction are complicated by the nature of the material we are dealing with.

Museum collections include every type of material from prehistoric fossil remains to the artefacts of contemporary culture. We are responsible for managing a huge amount of in-copyright material and material for which we don’t have any information about the attribution of rights. We are creating a vast quantity of new information – ranging from metadata to rich, narrative description and research. In a real sense, the management and use of a collection is about the management of rights, and on a scale that we are barely equipped to deal with.

In managing these rights, museums find themselves balancing four priorities:

  • Ensuring that the interests (both moral and economic) of the rights holders are respected;
  • An increasing expectation that they will generate revenue through the sale and licensing of images;
  • The public expectation that digital versions of heritage collections will be freely accessible online; and
  • The lack of resources to support the costs of digitisation and metadata

This, then, is the paradox. Failing to digitise is failing to deliver our public mission, but there isn’t enough public money to pay for it. Making ‘orphan works’ freely available online risks undermining the creators who depend on income from licensing their works, yet nobody is in a position to pay for collective licensing on the scale required

In the absence of solutions to this paradox, museums have learnt to coexist with risk – the risk of becoming irrelevant to online audiences offset against the risk of contravening someone’s rights. And if we cannot find creative solutions which reconcile the interests of creators and audiences, it is likely to impact on our children’s experience of their heritage for many generations to come.

It is in search of solutions that that Collections Trust and ORG have brought cultural organisations and open communities including the Open Knowledge Foundation, Wikipedia and Creative Commons together. We will be exploring the feasibility of an Open Digitisation Project, through which we hope to address some of these fundamental challenges. In the meantime, I welcome comments, ideas and questions from the ORGzine community!


 Nick Poole is Chief Executive of the Collections Trust, a not-for-profit social enterprise working with museums, libraries and archives in the UK and Europe. He is the Chair of the UK Committee of the International Council of Museums and of the Europeana Network, a cross-industry body representing cultural organisations, broadcasters and publishers. Nick is the UK representative at the European Commission on culture and technology. Follow Nick on twitter at @NickPoole1 and on the Collections Link website at

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Comments (2)

  1. Graham:
    May 30, 2012 at 11:15 PM

    I am sorry but I just do not accept the "paradox". One of those four priorities completely trumps the other three: publicly funded museums must make their content (collection material AND research output) freely available as rapidly as they can. I understand there is no money -- so that may be very slowly -- but the answer is NOT attempting to generate revenue from the material. Better to grind to a halt until society can afford to fund the process than to undermine their whole raison d'etre by attempting to "licence". The reason is the same reason publicly funded museums must be free to visit: they exist for all of us.

  2. Sylvia Morris:
    May 31, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    A very interesting article, but can I suggest that the same problem applies to libraries and even more so to archives? As it happens I'm just writing an article about my move from being in charge of a small but internationally-important library/archive to being an independent blogger.
    I've now seen this paradox from both sides. The paradox used to be between protection and access, but digitisation makes both possible. There is still a paradox for collections, but it's now a different one, as you set out. Many museums,galleries and stately homes now allow visitors to take photographs without restriction. Not only does this disadvantage the online visitor, it allows people to publish pictures on the internet without any attribution or credit to the gallery. MLAs must free up their digital collections (or at least part of them) or they will certainly become irrelevant.

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By Nick Poole on May 28, 2012

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