Museum image fees - a call to arms (ctd.)

December 19 2017

Image of Museum image fees - a call to arms (ctd.)

Picture: FT

There was an interesting piece in the FT by Tristram Hunt, focusing on how 3D scans of objects can help us to preserve our fragile heritage. An obvious example is the ancient city of Palmyre. But Hunt (the director of the V&A) also touched on whether museums which own similarly important objects should be concerned about who is allowed to make such scans. And his argument has an important bearing on the issue of museums charging to reproduce images of out of copyright artworks. Hunt asks:

[...] who owns the data? If a private company flies a drone over the biblical cities of Jordan to digitally recreate lost civilisations, should the metadata lie with local communities, the government or the company?

For museums, much of this is a conversation around letting go. The era of mass digital reproduction starts to separate authority from authenticity, as online communities gain the means to manipulate scanned images and 3D prints for their own ends. To my mind, we have the right and indeed obligation to prevent the overt commercialisation of our collections, but not disavow the wisdom of crowds. Similarly, there is merit in generating internationally recognised systems of content licensing and data harmonisation to create greater access to our shared history for an increasingly connected global community.

Ultimately, we should not be fearful of the digital turn. From Syria to Tibet, we know that communities deeply value having their heritage recorded and cultural identity valorised. And, for museums, the era of virtual reality, super computers, mass data and 3D printing does nothing to undermine our allure. The early prophet of mass production, Walter Benjamin, once mused, “in the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of US”. The aura of the original and the inauthenticity of the replica remains; for the human condition it seems there is no substitute for seeing the real thing. As we put more online, more visitors come through our doors to view our collections and make their own photographic records.

Reading that, I don't see how the V&A can justify charging image fees. By 'putting more online' I presume Hunt doesn't just mean only on the V&A's own website, but other sites, journals and so on. All of it helps generate interest and awareness of the V&A's collection, and therefore drives people through the doors. Indeed, it is up to 3rd party sites, and even books and television programmes, to effectively 'curate' what is in the V&A's collection for an online audience. Who after all is going to browse through the however many hundreds of thousands of objects on the V&A's own website? 

Similarly, I think Hunt is right to warn of the 'obligation to prevent the overt commercialisation of our collections', but the same applies to the V&A itself commercialising publicly owned collections, by charging fees for people to reproduce them. And nor does Hunt add, in his final line about encouraging visitors to 'make their own photographic records' that the small print would say; 'you may only take photos for your own personal use'.

While the V&A does have one of the more liberal attitudes to image fees among the UK's national museums, it is a long way from 'letting go' of control of their collection. While it allows free image use in 'non-commercial' (ie, academic) publications up to 4,000 copies (Good) there is a lot of onerous small print. For example, 'non-commercial' is defined as;

[...] any use that is not intended for or directed towards commercial advantage of monetary compensation.

In other words, you, poor academic, must write your book for free. 

Then, the free images are only available in small sizes and at low resoultion:

Images can be published in print at up to A5 size and digitally at a maximum 768 pixels along the longest side.

And the worst sleight of hand of all:

Images for use in exhibitions, displays and catalogues are subject to our commercial conditions.

So if you're a small museum or other gallery wanting to put on an exhibition, and make reference to a work in the V&A, you must pay the commercial rate, even if your exhibition is free and entirely non-commercial.

Of course, the main point is; having the staff to write, implement and police all these rules costs money, and so the temptation is to charge where possible in order to raise the fees to pay the staff. And so it goes on.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to money. Will museums be prepared to sacrifice the relatively small revenue brought in by image fees in order to reap the benefits of what would be a massive, free and perpetual advertising campaign for their collection, as enjoyed by the likes of the Rijksmuseum? In the FT, Hunt talks the talk on opening access to his museum's data. But let's see if he'll walk the walk. 

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