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CLIR Announces Report on Open Access to Images of Museum Works

Washington, DC, July 01, 2013-A new report, prepared for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and published by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), describes the current approaches of 11 art museums to the use of images from their collections, when the underlying works are in the public domain.

The report, Images of Works of Art in Museum Collections: The Experience of Open Access, was written by Kristin Kelly. Ms. Kelly, a freelance museum professional and writer, spent nine years as the manager of administration at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and nine years overseeing public programming and communications at the Getty Conservation Institute.

Art museums have long controlled the images of objects in their collections by charging fees for their use. In recent years, however, several art museums in the United States and United Kingdom have adopted policies permitting more open access to these images. The author surveyed staff at the British Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morgan Library and Museum, National Gallery of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, Walters Art Museum, Yale Center for British Art, and Yale University Art Gallery about their open-access policies.

The author found that each of the museums studied has taken a slightly different approach to making images of the works in its collection more openly accessible. Some have put high-resolution digital files of works online for use by anyone for any purpose. Others have established a “fee and free” system that considers whether use is for commercial use or for promotion of scholarship. Still others evaluate each request on its individual merits. By presenting the thought processes and methods used in these institutions, the report aims to inform the decision making of other museums that are considering open access to images in their collections.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Providing open access is a mission-driven decision. Every staff member of each museum in the study emphasized that museums exist to educate and serve their audiences, and that providing access to images of works in their collection is part of their institutional mission.
  • Different museums look at open access in different ways. Some museums have the technological, financial, and human resources to provide free, immediate, high-quality downloads of collection images, while others are taking the process in steps as resources and time permit.
  • Internal process is important. The decision to provide open access to images can affect many people in a museum. Each is a stakeholder in the process, and each needs to understand and participate in the decision making. Senior-level commitment is critical.
  • Loss of control fades as a concern. While many museum staff had legitimate questions and concerns about providing open access to images of works in their collection, their worst fears have not been realized. Several of the museums are part of the Google Art Project, or have contributed to Wikimedia or other social media sites, which means that images of many of their works are already available online.
  • Technology matters. While a decision to provide open access to images is not based solely on the available technology, it is important to have clean and complete metadata, an effective digital asset management system, generally solid museum technology, and the staff to manage all of these systems.
  • Revenue matters less than many institutions think it does. While revenue remains a topic of interest to many museums, staff generally acknowledge that their desire to provide information about the collection in as open a manner as possible trumps revenue concerns.
  • Change is good. No museum that has made the transition to open access for the images in its collection would return to its previous approach.

“The report’s findings are compelling,” said CLIR President Chuck Henry. “From the interviews with staff and analysis of data, important changes over time can be noted in the museum community. These findings, among many other insights offered in the report, are of considerable value in helping us refine our strategies of access moving forward.”

Mariët Westermann, vice president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, observed: “The Foundation recognizes the many challenges that museums face in handling copyright and other issues related to image licensing and distribution. However, making images of works of art widely and easily available is vital to art history as a discipline and to the public understanding of art and the function of museums. We at the Foundation are pleased that Kris Kelly’s report shows how much progress museums have made in facilitating the use of images of works in their collections, despite the obstacles that remain.”

The report is available as a PDF download at

CLIR is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. It aims to promote forward-looking collaborative solutions that transcend disciplinary, institutional, professional, and geographic boundaries in support of the public good.

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