Liz Neely | Display At Your Own Risk


Creating Culture By, With and For the Public
Liz Neely, Harwood Museum of Art of the University of New Mexico

Liz Neely, Creating Culture By, With and For the Public, in Andrea Wallace and Ronan Deazley, eds, Display At Your Own Risk: An experimental exhibition of digital cultural heritage, 2016.


I recently attended the Museums and the Web Conference in Los Angeles where organizers took the occasion of its 20th convening to reflect on future needs of the museum field. In this visioning process, conference co-chair Nancy Proctor proposed a new definition for museums that resonated with me:

Museums: A catalytic space for the inspiration, curation and creation of culture, by, with and for the public. (Proctor 2016)

This concept of the museum describes the source of my passion and dedication to this sector – just as I myself edge near my second decade as a museum professional. I love art, but I find myself even more intrigued by the power of art and creativity to transform us. I am a technologist, a curator, an educator, an artist, and a maker – museums have the power to be my partner, guide, and muse in all of these pursuits.

In his 2015 AAM webinar ‘The Future is Open,’ Michael Edson cites from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that ‘Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’. Technology continuously offers new opportunities for increasing access to cultural heritage such that museums can more radically become platforms for inspiration, critical dialogue, creativity, tolerance, and community. While museums are evolving to more open models, a paradigm shift is in order in which we disambiguate the sharing of collections from these physical institutions, allow access for extensive usage needs and remixes, and resolve re-integration of in-copyright cultural objects. It is through both philosophical definitions of the museum’s role accompanied with tactical operational and policy-based action that we can ensure the right to cultural life in the broadest sense.


Museum missions have long been about collecting, preserving and interpreting culture. Indeed, the creation of the museum as an idea was heavily directed by the desire to make private collections accessible to and in the trust of the public domain.

The museums of the world – large and small – all have their own histories based on their patrons, collectors, curators, and political interests. Before the digital era, travelling exhibitions and print publications were the means that allowed for a dialogue of objects from different institutional collections and the access to these objects outside of their physical homes.

The museum as a physical space to be visited has limitations in its access to the public. Most museum collections are far larger than gallery space can display, with often less than 10% of any museum collection on view at any one time. Objects can go decades without public access. In addition, geographical limitations make comparative studies across collections resource intensive.


The emergence of the internet in the mid to late 1990s expanded possibilities for greatly increasing access to the world of culture stewarded by museums. Museums began publishing online collections and these cultural objects, by virtue of their digital surrogates, were now exposed and released from the constraints of their physical locations. The internet allows objects to travel and intermingle freely with other comparative objects regardless of their owners. These digital surrogates do not become replacements for the authentic objects, but allow a point of access for exposure to the wider interconnected web of history.

Despite these more ideal visions of collections intermingling freely on the internet, the  manner in which museums use the web has often continued to draw influence from the physical nature of the museum. In his influential Smithsonian Ignite talk of 2011, ‘What’s the Point of a Museum Website,’ Koven Smith asserts ‘Museums are building kick-ass Conestoga wagons when what we need is an automobile.’ Online collections were, and generally continue to be, bespoke presentations of each museum, not sufficiently disambiguating from the physical museum and largely missing out on the real potential of the internet in the global network of information. Koven wonders who will go to your museum’s online collections? To extend that thought: if I’m studying James Turrell, will I visit every museum’s website with Turrell’s works in their online collections? How will I even know which museums have Turrell? More likely I’ll just use Google.


The increase in artwork images online – whether originating from a museum or from third-party sources – opened the Pandora’s box of demand for these digital images. The desire for digital surrogates of artworks in an emerging culture of free sharing conflicted directly with museum image licensing practices. Since the landmark ruling in Bridgeman Art Library v Corel Corp. (1999) that a ‘slavish’ reproduction of artwork could not be eligible for copyright, museums have stretched their authority and gatekeeper role claiming rights for public domain images (Crews 2012). In an excellent study funded by the Kress Foundation analyzing museums’ terms of use, Kenneth Crews explains:

When a museum constrains the public domain, it is inhibiting new creativity and scholarly exploration. Any burden on the public domain is also in direct defiance of a central premise of copyright law. The museum may very well be fulfilling a mission of preserving the integrity of existing art, but it is not serving the public interest in the advancement of either art or the law. (Crews 2012)

Aside from the mission-driven desires to make culture more accessible to the public, the trend towards open access also builds its foundations on complex and confusing copyright laws, the availability of artwork images on the internet from sources other than museums, and the increasing demand for these images in various digital publishing formats. In other words, the trend towards open collections is a very good thing – and it is also inevitable.

The open access trend in the US has been a grassroots movement led by individual institutions changing their own policies and developing precedent. Indeed, it is a very positive sign that the list of open access institutions continues to grow, which enables further use and study of these collections.

One product of these advancements led by individual institutions is that terms can vary widely between museums – from what each policy makes open, to how data and digital surrogates can be used, to how easy it all is to access.

For example, compare the National Gallery of Art’s policy to the much more restrictive terms of The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Open Access Policy for Images of Works of Art Presumed in the Public Domain
With the launch of NGA Images, the National Gallery of Art implements an open access policy for digital images of works of art that the Gallery believes to be in the public domain. Images of these works are now available free of charge for any use, commercial or non-commercial. Users do not need to contact the Gallery for authorization to use these images. They are available for download at the NGA Images website ( (NGA n.d.)

Images of Works of Art that are in the Public Domain
Images of works of art that the Museum believes to be in the public domain which are identified as [logo] on the Site may be downloaded for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws. In addition, authorized non-commercial uses for such images shall include scholarly publications in any media. Users must, however, cite the author and source of such images, and the citations should include the URL “,” but not in any way that implies endorsement of the user or the user’s use of the images. / Users may not modify Materials on the Websites. / All rights not expressly granted herein by the Museum are specifically and completely reserved. (MMA 2014)


The Rijkmusuem in the Netherlands has been dutifully lauded for its Rijksstudio that goes beyond simply opening access, as it also provides creative tools for manipulating and remixing collection images. Taco Dibbits, Director of Collections, maintains that manipulating the artwork allows for a different kind of viewing; he argues that ‘The action of actually working with an image, clipping it out and paying attention to the very small details makes you remember it.’ Upon being questioned about restrictions on the type of use permitted, Dibbits replied, ‘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.’ (Siegal 2013). The Rijkmuseum has experimented with other making techniques and technologies, such as 3D printing, to extend the concept.

The National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst) released an open access policy and promoted the use of the collection objects by presenting remixed works in its galleries for the pop-up exhibition Mix it up! consisting of a series interpretations that build upon artworks in the museum collection.[1] (Fig. 1, Fig. 2)

Figure 1 Frants Henningsen, A Funeral, 1883. 95x141,5 cm. kms1218; This digital surrogate is in the public domain and has been made available by The National Gallery of Denmark ‒ Statens Museum for Kunst

Figure 1: Frants Henningsen, A Funeral, 1883. 95×141,5 cm. kms1218; This digital surrogate is in the public domain and has been made available by The National Gallery of Denmark ‒ Statens Museum for Kunst

Figure 2: Artwork remix of the National Gallery of Denmark Mix it up! Exhibition, by Jamie Seaboch / EyeQ Innovations (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Figure 2: Artwork remix of the National Gallery of Denmark Mix it up! Exhibition, by Jamie Seaboch / EyeQ Innovations (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Several museums have initiated projects incorporating 3D printing technologies to encourage exploration and creative adaptation of the collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art launched their efforts with a 3D Hack-a-Thon in 2012 inviting artists to re-interpret the collection.[2] At the Art Institute of Chicago, I led the year-long Museum3D project where we investigated the impact of using 3D technologies in public programmes.[3] Our study found that working with the collection to create new objects – surrogates or remixes – inspired discussions of artistic practice and art. The multi-sensory aspect embedded in 3D programs also proved very powerful in building more meaningful connections with the original cultural objects (Fig. 3). Programmes that promote hands-on participatory use of cultural objects aim to build appreciation, creative confidence and the creation of new ideas. It should be noted that 3D scanning and printing follows a different set of intellectual property rights and also, being a newer technology, do not carry the museum licensing legacy of 2D image surrogates.

Figure 3 3D Printed Book of Bas Relief from The Art Institute of Chicago by Tom Burtonwood. The book features braille descriptions and can be used to mold new reproductions using the negative and positive relief. The source files are available on Github and Thingiverse for anyone to print. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Figure 3: 3D Printed Book of Bas Relief from The Art Institute of Chicago by Tom Burtonwood. The book features braille descriptions and can be used to mold new reproductions using the negative and positive relief. The source files are available on Github and Thingiverse for anyone to print. (CC BY-SA 4.0)


OpenGLAM is a community effort to establish standards and principles to support and make open access efforts sustainable. It is an initiative run by Open Knowledge that promotes free and open access to digital cultural heritage held by Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (known as the GLAM sector).[4]

The OpenGLAM principles reveal a big picture approach towards ‘advancing humanity’s knowledge’ and the role of a museum in facilitating this process. The OpenGLAM community has the potential to help standardize the meaning of open access, if even by engaging the dialogue amongst individual institutions and scholars.

Excerpted from the OpenGLAM principles:

Galleries, libraries, archives and museums have a fundamental role in supporting the advance of humanity’s knowledge. They are the custodians of our cultural heritage and in their collections they hold the record of humankind.

The internet presents cultural heritage institutions with an unprecedented opportunity to engage global audiences and make their collections more discoverable and connected than ever, allowing users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contributeparticipate and share.[5]

Other community efforts have influenced the copyright dialogue, notably the Sharing is Caring seminars on collaboration in the GLAM sector held once a year in Copenhagen, Denmark featuring an international set of speakers focused on Open Collections and Open Access.[6] Sharing is Caring seminars are organized by open access super-advocate Merete Sanderhoff.

Also of note is the Getty Foundation funded Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative 2009 – 2014 which brought together nine institutions and funded the investigation of new models for the museum collection catalogue. A major thread of this investigation focused on the affordability and sustainability of collection catalogues as online research tools, which would include comparative illustrations and media. Could a museum secure perpetual rights for an online publication that would persevere through different user interface and platforms? Would museums grant each other images without fees? And how does one deal with 20th century in-copyright material? Though this initiative has concluded, its influence in nudging museum policy towards a more open exchange of images for scholarly digital publication is worth noting.


Even with an increased number of museums moving toward open images, open data, and the relaxing of museum claims of its own licensing rights – these trends only address access to information regarding public domain works. Works under copyright or of orphaned status remain inaccessible and expensive for digital scholarship, leading to the so-called ‘black hole of the 20th century,’ a result of researchers steering away from problematic areas of study and leaning towards areas that are more affordable and accessible and thereby creating a gap of history. The College Art Association (CAA) published a 2014 issues report Copyright, Permissions, and Fair Use among Visual Artists and the Academic and Museum Visual Arts Communities, stating that one third of of visual artists and visual arts professionals have avoided or abandoned work in their field because of copyright concerns (Aufderheide et al. 2014).

Branden W. Joseph, a professor of modern and contemporary art at Columbia University, told the New York Times, ‘To publish an academic book, it can cost several thousand to over $10,000 for images.’ He added that images are vital in art scholarship and publishing and when they are not available, scholarship can be weakened or delayed or not pursued at all. The effects can filter down even to college art classes, where images necessary for teaching are sometimes too costly or complicated to obtain (Kennedy 2016).

One such complicated case is that of Dutch modern master painter Piet Mondrian, whose works entered the public domain according to European copyright law in 2015; yet, many of his later works are not scheduled to enter the public domain in the United States until sometime between 2019 and 2061. The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague owns the largest collection of Mondrian artworks in the world and have published a biography exploring the artist’s life. ‘The new book would’ve been too hard to publish if there were still copyrights on the work,’ Mr. Tempel said. ‘These kinds of books we don’t make money with; they’re meant to share our knowledge with the world, but to pay that much for a hundred reproductions would’ve been prohibitive.’ (Siegal 2015). Therefore, the book will only be published in Europe and not in the United States nor online because of the ongoing copyright outside of Europe.

In The missing decades: the 20th century black hole in Europeana, Pablo Uceda Gómez and Paul Keller confirmed this problem by examining the temporal distribution of works in the enormous Europeana dataset. The researchers concluded that ‘[f]rom the 1950s onwards, the amount of material that is made available online falls dramatically. While the first half of the 20th century represents 35% of the sample, the second half is only around 11%. These findings reinforce our earlier research and illustrate once more that cultural heritage institutions are hampered in their ability to make collections from the 20th century available online.’ (Gómez and Keller 2016). These studies have inspired to a call to action from museums across Europe regarding copyright reform by the European Commission (Cousins et al. n.d.)

Authors of the research paper Towards a Cultural Commons Approach as a Framework for Cultural Policy and Practice in a Network Society call for the creation of a commons approach for the dissemination open collections:

This approach should not be limited to freely accessible content in the public domain, but should also enable meaningful integrations of material where intellectual property rights still play a role and take into account opportunities for novel artistic creations. (van der Linden et al. n.d.)

In early 2016, The Raushenburg Foundation announced a pioneering update to its fair use policy unprecedented amongst contemporary art and artist rights foundations. The Foundation’s news release reports ‘We are pleased to announce a new Fair Use policy – the first to be adopted by an artist-endowed foundation – that will make images of Rauschenberg’s artwork more accessible to museums, scholars, artists, and the public.’

The Foundation’s reasoning maps to the aforementioned issues of copyright skewing art history: ‘First, due to the prohibitive costs associated with rights and licensing, many scholars and professors limit themselves to using freely available images in their lectures, presentations, and publications, which in turn can alter how art history itself is written and taught. Additionally, image licensing hinders the conversion of print publications to digital formats, due to the costs of obtaining rights for a second time.’

The Rauschenberg Foundation has decided to expand its Fair Use policy to the public at large after running a quiet pilot with several museum partners, including SFMOMA, which surely was related to their OSCI Rauschenberg Research Project. The Foundation said it was inspired by the increased use of Rauschenberg artwork images as a result of these pilot licences to museums. ‘The system has created barriers for the wrong people,’ Christy MacLear, the Rauschenberg Foundation’s chief executive told the New York Times. ‘There’s a lot of fear that has grown up around the use of images for things that we should all encourage, like education and scholarship and museum work.’ (Kennedy 2016). It seems evident that MacLear hopes the Foundation’s new policy will inspire action from other foundations and artist estates. Several leaders in that field were asked to respond in the New York Times article, yet shied away from jumping on board generally citing quality control issues (in direct contradiction to one of the Rijksmuseum’s motivations for allowing open access).


While Open Collections and open access to digital surrogates vastly expand access to museum collections, the cultural sector has not yet fully accepted that we have the ability to truly create new paradigms for access to the world’s cultural heritage. Much of what we see is still focused on access to individual collections housed in individual museums. One opportunity in this interconnected networked culture is to relegate collection owners as one layer of data – an important part of the history of collecting and collection building – but be able to employ research and create digital collections that are not based on collection owners or museums as physical structures.

Nick Poole, CEO of the Collections Trust, expressed and elaborated on this sentiment in his Code|Words essay: ‘In a networked world, success depends on achieving a fundamental transition from being a ‘bounded’ organization, defined by physical, intellectual and historical constraints, to an unbounded one.’ (Poole 2014). But to realize this paradigm shift, museums must think outside of their institutional walls and collaborate on sustainable interoperability of data with other museums to provide functional user interfaces for accessing and using pan-institutional cultural knowledge.

Europeana illustrates both the problem and the promise of multi-institutional collections access. The ambitious project has accomplished the massive feat of providing access to 52,219,831 artworks, artefacts, books, videos, and sounds from across Europe.[7] While continuous efforts are taken to improve the user interface and access to this large set of information, varying levels of metadata and standards affect a lowest-common-denominator search or data crunching. This will surely improve with time and it remains important that these initiatives are released with imperfections, rather than not be released. Multilingual and populated by a multitude of differing collections types, Europeana also features access through Linked Open Data (LOD), a semantic protocol that allows meaningful connections to information across the web.

Linked Open Data allows cultural collections to connect semantically to the rest of the web – where this cultural information becomes active nodes in the larger network. That ‘unbounded’ museum thus becomes an ‘unbounded’ sector that interlopes with other large datasets such as Wikipedia.

A small set of cultural institutions have released their collections as Linked Open Data and the effort is supported by a Linked Open Data in Libraries Archives and Museums (LODLAM) advocate group. Because semantically structured information allows for pivoting the focus of inquiry, Linked Open Data allows the researcher to form more multi-dimensional questions of data, which was once otherwise dependent on how a museum has structured data.

Linked Open Data have complex structures, are difficult for a layperson to understand, and require standardization of metadata to effectively be pan-institutional. In this emergent phase, using Linked Open Data to access cultural collections is not for the faint of heart. Museums have failed to adhere to standards (or alternatively have adhered to many ‘standards’) and therefore it is difficult to search across datasets. Additionally, interfaces are not user friendly and LODLAM resources thus far have focused on structuring the data for publishing, but not in improving user interfaces to facilitate better access for inquiry.


Merete Sanderhoff, Curator and Senior Advisor at the National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst) states: ‘The idea underpinning open collections is to turn artworks from passively consumed images into building blocks in the hands of users.’ This illustrates the initial big-picture concept of best allowing our museums to be catalysts for inspiration and creativity in our global society.

Though most of what I’ve advocated in this essay pushes for thinking beyond our individual institutional manifestations, this can only be accomplished by starting within our organizations to develop a philosophy for sharing collections and desired outcomes. To conclude, I quote the Director of National Gallery of Denmark, Mikkel Bogh (translation by Merete Sanderhoff):

With our digitised collections, we can support people in being reflective, creative human beings. But the precondition is that cultural heritage is common property, and that each and every one of us can use it for exactly what we dream of (…) Our role is still more to facilitate public use of cultural heritage for learning, creativity, and innovation. Today, learning happens in reciprocity. We are all a part of the Web. We educate each other. (Sanderhoff 2015)

We in museums must work together to rethink the paradigms of who we are and how we serve society. Access to the collections that we steward and facilitating their use as interfaces for critical dialogue and creativity will allow our institutions to be true enablers in the study and creation of culture by, with and for the public.


[1]          Mix it up! Remixing public domain artworks in the SMK collection, Pop-up exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark from 29-31 May 2015, available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016).

[2]          Met 3D Hack-a-Thon (2012), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016).

[3]          Museum3D at the Art Institute of Chicago (2013-14), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016).

[4]          OpenGLAM, available at: (accessed: 18 April 2016)

[5]          OpenGLAM Principles v.1.0 (n.d.), available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

[6]          Sharing is Caring (n.d.), available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016).

[7]          Europeana Portal (n.d.), available at: (accessed: 18 April 2016)


Works Cited

Aufderheide, P., et al., Copyright, Permissions, and Fair Use among Visual Artists and the Academic and Museum Visual Arts Communities: An Issues Report (February 2014), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

Cousins, J., et al., ‘Open letter on copyright reform’ (n.d.), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

Crews, Kenneth D., ‘Museum Policies and Art Images: Conflicting Objectives and Copyright Overreaching’ (2012) 22 Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal 795, available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

Edson, M., ‘The Future is Open’ (21 July 2015), Overview of open cultural content for American Alliance of Museums / Center for the Future of Museums ‘Trendswatch’ webinar, hosted by Blackbaud; Slide 12 available at: (accessed: 21 April 2016)

Europeana Portal n.d., available at: (accessed: 18 April 2016)

Gómez, P.U., and P. Keller, ‘The missing decades: the 20th century black hole in Europeana’ (13 November 2015), available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

Kennedy, R., ‘Rauschenberg Foundation Eases Copyright Restrictions on Art’ (26 February 2016) The New York Times, available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

Met 3D Hack-a-Thon (2012), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

Metropolitan Museum of Art Terms and Conditions and Terms of Use (2014), available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

Mix it up! Remixing public domain artworks in the SMK collection, Pop-up exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark from 29-31 May 2015, available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

Museum3D at the Art Institute of Chicago (2013-14), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

NGA Images n.d., available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

OpenGLAM Principles v.1.0 n.d., available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

OpenGLAM n.d., available at: (accessed: 18 April 2016)

Poole, N., ‘Change: A response to Mike Edson’s “Dark Matter: the Internet is open, social, peer-to-peer and read-write. And its only just begun”’ (25 November 2014), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

Proctor, Nancy, Opening remarks at the 20th Museums and the Web Conference (MWXX) (7 April 2016), from a definition developed by Jon Alexander of the New Citizenship Project; for more information, see:

Rauschenberg Foundation, ‘Foundation Announces Pioneering Fair Use Image Policy’ (29 February 2016), available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

Sanderhoff, M., ‘Wanna play? Building bridges between open museum content and digital learning in public schools’ (29 January 2015), available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

Sharing is Caring n.d., available at: (accessed: 17 April 2016)

Siegal, N., ‘As Artworks Enter Public Domain, Rules Remain Confusing’ (13 March 2015) The New York Times, available at: (accessed: 22 April 2016)

Siegal, N., ‘Masterworks for One and All’ (28 May 2013) The New York Times, available at: (accessed: 19 April 2016)

Smith, Koven J., ‘What’s the point of a museum website?’ (18 April 2011), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)

van der Linden, H., E. Van Passel & L. Driesen, ‘Towards a Cultural Commons Approach as a Framework for Cultural Policy and Practice in a Network Society’ (n.d.), available at: (accessed: 23 April 2016)


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