Simon Tanner | Display At Your Own Risk


Open GLAM: The Rewards (and Some Risks) of Digital Sharing for the Public Good
Simon Tanner, King’s College London

Simon Tanner, Open GLAM: The Rewards (and Some Risks) of Digital Sharing for the Public Good, in Andrea Wallace and Ronan Deazley, eds, Display At Your Own Risk: An experimental exhibition of digital cultural heritage, 2016.



The research-led exhibition experiment Display at Your Own Risk (Wallace and Deazley 2016) provides an exciting opportunity to ask some fundamental questions regarding the behavioural gaps between ‘what we say’ and ‘what we do’ in regard to museum practice and with art/images. Sometimes this is driven, as the exhibition organizers point out, by the gap between institutional policies and public understanding. By selecting 100 digital surrogate images of public domain works for this exhibition and printing them to the underlying artwork’s original dimensions this exhibition poses some interesting questions.

Take just one image in this exhibition as an exemplar. Black Fan (1908-09) by artist Fujishima Takeji (who lived from 1867-1943) demonstrates the contradictions implicit in every artwork in the exhibition (Fig.1). This digital surrogate image is available through Wikimedia Commons with a statement ‘According to Japanese Copyright Law the copyright on this artwork has expired and is as such public domain’ and it can be downloaded at a resolution of up to 3,419 × 5,001 pixels (Wikimedia Commons 2016). The material object artwork is physically located at the Bridgestone Museum of Art (Tokyo, Japan) and they make a digital version available through the Google Cultural Institute and their own website each with differing copyright statements and terms of use. Bridgestone’s is restrictive[1] and Google’s frankly non-existent or very unclear[2] from a user’s perspective. One of the central tenets of the exhibition and its underlying research is thus exemplified: that public understanding of copyright, image use and reuse is often at odds with information and understanding formalized by the museums and other memory institutions that provide digital access to works of art.

Figure 1: img_japanese04, Bridgestone Museum of Art, 17.146 px/in, 2016. Fujishima Takeji, 1867-1943, Black Fan, 1908-1909, Oil on canvas, 63.7 x 42.4 cm, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo. This digital surrogate is © Bridgestone Museum of Art.

The Fujishima Takeji digital surrogate demonstrates the importance of transparency. In a behavioural sense, ‘transparency’ is supposed to imply openness, accountability and clarity of purpose/expectation. However, too often in the arena of intellectual property there is insufficient clarity of meaning or openness. Often transparency here seems more to reflect the translucency of air: visible in large nebulous weather systems, but when held in our own hands utterly invisible and unseeable to all but the expert.

My contribution here will focus upon the importance of sharing art works in the public domain and to provide, I hope, a strong argument for such sharing. Let me clearly state my starting philosophical perspective that all cultural content should be as freely available to as many people as possible. I believe the rewards outstrip the risks. However, as I will explore, what is possible or practicable is a variable factor that can sometimes provide a barrier too high to easily surmount.

In my opinion, this exhibition, curated so expertly by Andrea Wallace in partnership with Professor Ronan Deazley, is a necessary, exciting and intellectually stimulating addition to the body of work that CREATe ( is producing in this domain.


‘If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it’ is often attributed to Margaret Fuller, the 19th Century Women’s Rights Activist. For me, this is what sharing means. Museum/gallery, archive, library (GLAM) and other memory organizations, have the wealth of human knowledge and experience within their collections and I feel it is their responsibility to share that with the world – GLAM should seek to educate, to enlighten, and to entertain. And increasingly, their ability to share is becoming ever more feasible because, just like a candle’s flame, when we share digitally we enable lots of other flames to be lit at little cost other than our initial willingness to share. Such sharing activities are epitomized by the Open Access movement, the pioneering CC0 ‘No Rights Reserved’ licences, or Europeana’s provision of millions of items from a range of Europe’s leading galleries, libraries, archives, museums, and universities (Gray 2012).

Europeana’s work demonstrates one of the key themes of the exhibition: it is not enough to be open, it’s important to be seen to be explicitly open and easily accessible. When people trade with each other in the digital world they do so for reasons that cannot be neatly wrapped and tied up with an economic theorist’s bow. People’s trading behaviour is always complex, especially online. In my opinion, all sharing is linked to our innate sense of fairness as expressed in the Golden Rule (Tanner 2014). Some may quibble about whether the economic models underlying digital sharing approaches are fair and affordable. Surely, it is not fair that there are digital ‘free riders’ out there gaining something for free at the expense of tax payers or private funders? I posit that people are driven much more by values and fairness than price/cost. A fair price is very hard to assess in a digital domain and not often a good indicator of actual value or even of the monetary trade that is happening.

For instance, in my research into American Art Museums I demonstrated that museums do not carry out image creation or rights and reproduction activity because of its profitability and that their pricing was often quite randomly assigned (Tanner 2004). The primary driving factors for providing these services are the values of serving public and educational use and to promote the museum and its collections. In this research I concluded with several searching questions to set priorities in this area:

  • Is control over the way an image of an artwork owned by the museum is used, represented and credited the most important priority to the museum?
  • Is the fidelity of the image to the original artwork as important a priority as controlling its use?
  • Is promotion of the museum’s collections as important a priority?
  • Does scholarly and educational use of an artwork (especially one in the public domain) ever contradict or supersede the need to control its representation and use?
  • Does serving the internal needs of the museum ever contradict or supersede the need to control the representation of artworks?
  • Does recouping service costs or making a surplus ever contradict or supersede the need for control? Is there a sum of money at which the museum would relax such control?
  • Are providing high fidelity images with an appropriate licence for the museum and the wider communities use more important than how much the service costs to run? (Tanner 2004)

I feel these questions are represented in the digital surrogates (and their host institutions) included in the Display at Your Own Risk exhibition. They still remain relevant as a way for museums to investigate their priorities and strategic perspectives.


When the Rijksmuseum made over 125,000 art works freely available in high resolution Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum Director of Collections, confronted very directly the presumption that art museums must control how reproductions of their collections are used, stating ‘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.’ (Segal 2013)

This attitude feeds into a participative user culture that Merete Sanderhoff has divided into themes where people can ‘discuss, share, and remix artworks’ (Sanderhoff 2013). One of the core benefits of increased digital content (both the digitized and the born digital) has been the consequential growth in content that may be investigated, parsed, reused and mined for research purposes and for the wider public’s entertainment, enlightenment and education. A digital resource should thus ideally in a participative world enable a set of functions, namely (but not exclusively):

  • Discovering
  • Annotating
  • Comparing
  • Referring
  • Sampling
  • Illustrating
  • Representing (Unsworth 2000)

What this implies for museums is described by Sanderhoff:

Firstly, it implies allowing people to download images and share them on social media like blogs, Facebook, and Flickr, enabling them to discuss and comment images independently of a museum framework. Secondly, images must be available in such high resolution that people can zoom in on minute details, cut out, photoshop and remix the images, place them in new contexts such as PowerPoint presentations, publications, mobile apps, or derivative works like digital mashups, collages, and YouTube videos, and maybe even print them in original or manipulated versions on commercial products like t-shirts, posters, wallpaper, coffee mugs or, indeed, toilet paper. (Sanderhoff 2013)

The major barrier has ceased to be technological. It is policy driven and the policy is often informed by concerns that relate to the intricacies of intellectual property. But, as demonstrated by Display at Your Own Risk, such policies are being conflated for both public domain and copyright-protected works. The change needed is strategic and policy-based in nature. This takes time and energy from the host institutions with the rewards needing to be clear to senior management.

There are examples of how such strategic changes can deliver significant perceived rewards:

  • In 2011, Yale University Art Museums made over 250,000 high quality digital images of its cultural heritage collections openly and freely available. John ffrench, Director of Visual Resources at Yale Art Gallery, wrote that ‘In the months after Open Access was announced we saw a 40% increase in the number of requests we received through our Rights and Reproductions offices which we feel is a success and clear indicator we made a wise move’ (ffrench 2013)
  • In March 2012, the US National Gallery of Art launched its new NGA Images site:  ‘NGA Images [is] a new online resource that revolutionizes the way the public may interact with its world-class collection,’ wrote Alan Newman at the US National Gallery of Art. ‘Since inception more than 400,000 images have been downloaded’ (Newman 2013)
  • The Walters Art Museum also makes 19,000 images freely available. William Noel, formerly of the Walters Art Museum wrote: ‘The Walters loss of control of its images was essential to its success … Why did we make our data free and open? So that it would be used. How do I know it’s been used?  Well, we have 2.5 million views on Flickr in 3.5 years, and that’s just one of many interfaces (the most popular; the least archival) by which our images are viewed. And I know our illuminated manuscripts are more available than anybody else’s, just by going to a Google image search for an illuminated Gospel, or an illuminated Koran (just for example).’ (Noel 2013)
  • There are further examples covered in the excellent summaries provided by Kapsalis investigation of impact in OpenGLAM (Kapsalis 2016). One of the most important insights came from Rob Stein in relation to the Dallas Museum of Art: ‘As an institution it was important for us to publish our entire collection online … The reasoning went beyond transparency and openness: we felt that we needed to more positively and strongly broadcast the fact that the Dallas Museum of Art has a deep and encyclopedic collection.’ (Kapsalis 2016)

These rewards are real and they respond to a desire from the public for authentic, trusted, valued sources of cultural content in the midst of millions of choices. However, at the same time there is a lack of solid evidence or quantifiable research that shows that when memory organizations share content openly and for free that those communities care. I can imagine a cry from OpenGLAM practitioners of ‘But we have millions of online visitors, how can you assert they don’t care?’ and they would be right to be concerned. I am not stating that they do not care whether the museum is available to them digitally – the numbers and growth relating to that are quite clear. But I am stating that at present we have very little information on whether these communities care that the content is:

  • free
  • open under a CC0 licence (or similar), or
  • much larger in volume and extent than would otherwise be available

I am going to be bold enough to suggest that the general public do not care about the current and ongoing revolution in OpenGLAM practice. I assert that to an average person their assumed position is that digital cultural heritage should already be open, because to them this has always been their assumed position.[3]

In essence, OpenGLAM is running to catch up with attitudes. This revolution is perceived by a net-native demographic as no longer illustrating innovative practice but simply meeting basic expectations. A challenge that memory organizations face is the duality presented by Herbert A. Simon:

[I]n an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. (1971)

What we take notice of, and the regarding of something or someone as interesting or important, delineates what we consider worthy of attending to and thus defines our economics of attention.

We should also consider economic and age demographics here as significant. The United Nations predicts the global middle class will expand to 3.2 billion people by the year 2020 and reports that the number of older persons has tripled over the past 50 years and will more than triple again over the next 50 (Kharas 2010). Such demographic shifts coupled with the ‘all information is free on the Web’ attitude of millennials and Generation Facebook means that free access to our cultural content is no less than they can expect – from the Web, and a life time of tax contributions.

Free is already seen as the default of fair. This has consequences – our cultural content is going the way of email and becoming a Cinderella service – it’s of importance to everyday life, it is a public good, but not something the general public often consider directly paying for. It is becoming a ubiquitous utility, like water, but treated with the same casual indifference as we treat the quality of our air. We only notice its absence or if it’s of a poor standard.

In such a climate I suggest the modern memory organization has to make its digital content as freely available as possible – any other route will lead to obsolescence of purpose in the public eye. But the problem will always remain that the self-same public does not particularly care about the economic model expressed by free digital content, while our governments and other funding sources are obsessed with economic consequences.

So when we explore beneficial impacts we find they are often two dimensional: revolving around efficiency and effectiveness. But this leaves many cold and feeling uninvolved. Merely delivering more content faster or for free is not a clarion call that delivers greater funding or engenders excitement in senior decision makers. One reason is that the commercial sector has proven itself consistently better at delivering more and faster content. Stating we have 100,000 historic photographs in our digital collection when Facebook has uploaded 350 million photos every day leaves us at a competitive disadvantage – even if its comparative veracity and worth may be deeply questionable.

The GLAM community have to both justify its digital expenditure to governments and funders, whilst linking their most fundamental mission to concepts that the general public can associate with. In this regard, expressing values and linking them to the communities’ values becomes the core mechanism for demonstrating worth and impact. This is the essential underpinning of the suggested approach in the Balanced Value Impact Model (Tanner 2012).

Peter Gorgels from the Rijksmuseum gave a wonderful keynote at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand. He stated about the new Rijksstudio: ‘we have 125,000 art works available in high resolution. Anything you want you can do with it … So now we can say “I love Rijks”, the Rijksmuseum was a very dull, traditional museum and now we can say proudly “I love Rijks” … So if you think about impact then maybe love is the biggest impact.’ (Gorgels 2014)


I firmly believe the OpenGLAM movement is now inevitable for many memory organizations; especially those with substantial public funding and public domain collections. As Sanderhoff explains:

In the digital age, the restrictions museums lay on digital images of public domain artworks are standing in the way of education, research, and creative reuse on digital media terms. Effectively, the obligation many museums feel to protect and preserve their collections against any misuse gets in the way of their obligation to educate the public about its collections. (Sanderhoff 2013)

Over twenty years of experience now also shows that even those memory organizations that wish to control how digital surrogates of artworks are used find it nigh on impossible to do so. Even so, I find some caveats that are worth stating in this period of transition.

Whilst the Rijksmuseum digital surrogates contained in Display at Your Own Risk are freely available, their terms still desire that the user acknowledge the source and in the case of a publication would appreciate a copy for their library (Wallace and Deazley 2016). This seems quite reasonable and a further feature of the attention economy – being acknowledged is a major part of the trade that is happening, especially in OpenGLAM contexts. Concerns around moral rights and the responsibility held by a museum remain. In one example from personal experience, a museum[4] was asked commercial permission to reproduce a public domain digital surrogate of Madonna and Child on a music CD cover only to later find the cover would include the words ‘Satanic Santas,’ ‘Nazi Nuns’ and some expletives relating to sexual acts between them. The museum denied permission on the basis of a derogatory use and not wishing to associate the museum name with the work. Whether they were right or wrong is a question that can be debated – how far along the Taco Dibbits ‘anything goes’ spectrum can or should a museum travel? This museum felt a responsibility and a desire to protect moral rights aspects relating to the work (which, in some countries, can extend well beyond copyright even in public domain works). The consequences of such desires have to be addressed in strategic terms for the museum with its community and should not be traded or treated lightly. Not all collections are equally harmless in content, nor the uses of the collection without bias or discrimination that could damage the museum and/or its community.

Another somewhat connected anxiety is that experienced by my own academic subject area: the Digital Humanities. As the digital domain is dominated by works that are out of copyright or in the public domain it creates a temporal hole in the digital resources available; freely accessible scholarly primary source research material is limited by intellectual property laws. Digitization, especially of cultural heritage, brings ‘a curious and unprecedented fusion of technology, imagination, necessity, philosophy and production which is continuously creating new images, many of which are changing the culture within which we live’ (Colson and Hall 1992). In the Digital Humanities I am sometimes concerned that we cannot represent the 20th Century with the same depth and verve as preceding centuries because of this bias in availability. For instance, an estimate for newspapers using very conservative measures suggests ‘there are 2,015,000,000 copyrighted newspaper pages that are for the most part ignored by publicly funded digitisation projects’ (Zarndt et al. 2011). A similar estimate could be made for many forms of cultural content. Whilst not suggesting that commercial interests be set aside, we should be cognisant of the scholarly bias of attention that is produced by a more limited availability for the 20th Century of digitized content available to digital humanities techniques because of copyright.

Added to this concern about basic availability is that of many marginalized communities who were (and still are) denied ownership and curatorship over cultural heritage collections, especially in a dominating white European/North American collection context. Digitization of these biased collections can be open to even wider ‘misappropriation and misunderstandings by outsiders’ (Srinivasan et al. 2009). This concern reflects the extent of funding available for digitization and upon which collections this funding is focused. If the same white European/North American perspective dominating collections are all that are digitized and available to digital humanities techniques because of the time-lapse element of copyright protection then they can further exacerbate this bias and loss of ownership.

My caveats therefore are about trust and unconscious bias. These may never be resolved to anyone’s full satisfaction but are well represented in Display at Your Own Risk. Is untrammelled use of these digital surrogates OK?, and is the digital djinn so far out of the magic lantern that trying to control it is pointless? Do this exhibition’s 100 digital surrogates represent more than a Eurocentric 19th Century curatorial collecting strategy that is being further promulgated by digitization and the constraints of the public domain[5]? Even the Black Fan painting from Japanese painter, Fujishima Takeji, was painted in Italy with the subject’s white veil and black fan reflecting a somewhat Spanish influence. Does the inclusion and/or exclusion of metadata build on this bias of availability, attention, and relevance?

This exhibition raises many provoking questions. It opens issues for debate by shining light upon areas otherwise obscured due to the language, implementation, and terminology of intellectual property. Too often there is insufficient clarity of meaning or transparency. This exhibition captures a moment in the transition to openness for digital heritage collections and for OpenGLAM. It is a welcome point of reflection within the constant flux of digital cultural heritage.

Sharing is the key value to be pursued; for what is the benefit gained from keeping digital surrogates under a virtual lock and key? The trust and participation sharing can engender in our communities are worthy factors in service to the ideal of: the most information, to the most people, as freely available as practicable.

No museum that has made the transition to open access for the images in its collection would return to its previous approach. Although challenges are still being resolved, such as the additional workload and the potential uncertainty about where images of works from their collections have been published, museum staff cited the satisfaction that comes from fulfilment of the museum’s mission as a tremendous positive. (Kelly 2013)


[1]          ‘© Bridgestone Museum of ArtTerms of Use: Copyrights, trademarks, and other rights: Copyright and other rights to all materials on this website (text, images, and data) are held by the the Museum or by rights holders who have approved the Museum’s use of those materials. Copying, downloading, reproduction, or other use of these materials beyond the personal use and other uses expressly permitted by Japanese law, without permission by the rights holder, is prohibited. (Bridgestone Museum of Art, 2016)

[2]          ‘We respond to notices of alleged copyright infringement and terminate accounts of repeat infringers according to the process set out in the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
We provide information to help copyright holders manage their intellectual property online. If you think that somebody is violating your copyright and want to notify us, you can find information about submitting notices and Google’s policy about responding to notices in our Help Centre.

Your Content in our Services
Some of our Services allow you to upload, submit, store, send or receive content You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.’ (Google Cultural Institute, 2016)

[3]          When I say ‘always’ in a digital context, I mean anything that has happened regularly for the past seven years.

[4]          I have deliberately withheld the museum name to protect the anonymity of the source.

[5]          I would like to acknowledge the extreme care and attention that Andrea Wallace has given to avoid such bias in the exhibition. I feel that any bias remaining on show is the result of the availability of open collections, the associated metadata and their museums historic collecting strategies.


Works Cited

Bridgestone Museum of Art, Black Fan 1908-1909 (2016), available at: (retrieved: 15 April 2016)

Colson, F. and W. Hall, ‘Educational Systems: Pictorial Information Systems and the Teaching Imperative’ in M. Thaller, ed., UNSPECIFIED Images and Manuscripts in Historical Computing (Scripta Mercaturae Verlag, 1992)

ffrench, J., Correspondence: Director of Visual Resources at Yale Art Gallery with Simon Tanner, King’s College London (October 2013)

Google Cultural Institute, Black Fan 1908-1909 (2016a), available at: (retrieved: 15 April 2016)

Google Cultural Institute, Terms of Use (2016b), available at: (retrieved: 15 April 2016)

Gorgels, P., Rijksstudio, Make Your Own Masterpiece. A Keynote from the 2013 NDF Conference (2014), available at: (retrieved: 15 April 2016)

Gray, J., ‘Europeana opens up data on 20 million cultural items’, The Guardian (2012), available at: (retrieved: 27 March 2016)

Kapsalis, E., The Impact of Open Access on Galleries, Libraries, Museums, & Archives (2016), available at: (retrieved: 15 April 2016)

Kelly, K., Images of Works of Art in Museum Collections: The Experience of Open Access. A Study of Eleven Museums (New York: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2013)

Kharas, H., The emerging middle class in developing countries, OECD Working Paper No. 285 (2010), available at: (retrieved: 15 April 2016)

Newman, A., Correspondence: Chief of the Division of Imaging & Visual Services at the US National Gallery of Art with Simon Tanner, King’s College London (October 2013)

Noel, W., Correspondence: Director of the Special Collections Center and the Schoenberg Institute at University of Pennsylvania formerly of the Walters Art Museum with Simon Tanner, King’s College London (October 2013)

Sanderhoff, M., ‘Open Images. Risk or opportunity for art museums in the digital age?’ (2013) Nordic Museology 131-46

Siegal, N., ‘Masterworks for One and All’, The New York Times (28 May 2013), available at: (retrieved: 27 March 2016)

Simon, H., Designing organizations for an information-rich world. Computers, Communications, and the Public Interest (1971), available at:

Srinivasan, R., J. Enote, K. Becvar and R. Boast, ‘Critical and Reflective Uses of New Media Technologies in Tribal Museums’ (2009) 24:2 Museum Management and Curatorship 161-81

Tanner, S., Reproduction charging models & rights policy for digital images in American art museums: A Mellon Foundation funded study (London: King’s College London, 2004), available at:

Tanner, S., Measuring the Impact of Digital Resources: The Balanced Value Impact Model (London: King’s College London, 2012), available at:

Tanner, S., When we share, do they care? Using Impact Assessment to understand how our digital presence changes lives. When the Data Hits the Fan (2014), available at: (retrieved: 27 March 2016)

Unsworth, J., ‘Scholarly Primitives: What methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?’ presented at the Humanities Computing: formal methods, experimental practice symposium, King’s College London (2000), available at: (retrieved: 15 April 2016)

Wallace, A., and R. Deazley, Display At Your Own Risk (2016), available at:

Wallace, A. and R. Deazley, eds, Display At Your Own Risk: An experimental exhibition of digital cultural heritage (2016), available at:

Wikimedia Commons, File:Fujishima Takeji – Black Fan – Google Art Project.jpg (2016), available at:

Zarndt, F., Boddie, S., Lanz, D., ‘Copyright, access policy, and copyright enforcement for digital newspaper collections’ in H. Walravens, ed., Newspapers: Legal Deposit and Research in the Digital Era, Volume 150 of IFLA Publications (Walter de Gruyter, 2011)


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